Monthly Recap: May 2017
I have to stop starting all these recaps with "OMG WHERE HAS THE TIME GONE??!!" May was such an awesome month for me -- wayyy better than April. I fell in love with Northern Thailand, was totally charmed by Myanmar, and spent time with my cousin in Vietnam. This was just the month that I needed, but it did have its ups and downs.
Where I've Been
- Chiang Mai - 9 nights
- Pai - 2 nights
- Yangon -3 nights
- Bagan - 2 nights
- Inle Lake - 2 nights
(plus three overnight buses in just 10 days, ugh!)
- Ho Chi Minh City - 5 nights
- Da Lat - 3 nights
- Nha Trang - 1 night
(one overnight bus)
Thai Thai Hostel, Chiang Mai, Thailand - This hostel is one of the best hostels I've ever stayed at! It's right up there with Cool Bananas in Agnes Water, Aus when it comes to atmosphere. The staff were amazing - Pom is the owner and he always greeted everyone with a huge smile. "ALYSSA!!! YOU'RE BACK!!" he said excitedly when Mike and I walked in the door after returning from our trip to Pai. It was so easy to meet people here. The dorm rooms were small and they squeezed too many beds into them, but other than that, I have no complaints. Thai Thai Hostel helped me get out of my travel funk.
I don't think I stayed in a bad hostel this month. The hostel in Pai had a good social vibe, the hostels in Myanmar were clean, and I got to stay with my cousin in HCMC!
I wrote about many of my May highlights in blog posts already, which you can find at the end of this recap.
Bungee jumping in Chiang Mai - "What do you want to do tomorrow?" "I dunno, bungee jumping?" And that's how Mike and I found ourselves bungee jumping at 8am the next day! I thought I had been bungee jumping before, in Switzerland six years ago, but that was apparently a different thing. So this was the first time I had been strapped by the feet and just had to fall off the platform, whereas in Switzerland, I had a harness and leaped off the platform. I went first and got nervous at the top! But I fell forward and loved every second of it. It was even more fun bungee jumping with someone else.
Cuddling kitties at a cat café - I miss my cats at home, so I needed some substitute kitties for the day. Catmosphere in Chiang Mai did just the trick. I forget how many cats there were, but there were a lot, and they were all cute, cuddly, and playful. Many of them were sleeping, but they would wake up for snacks. One cat in particular had to be held back every time the door opened because it would run out the door! It was a fun way to spend the afternoon.
Trying out my Thai cooking skills - I thought my cooking skills were shit, but apparently I can make a mean pad thai! Or maybe it was because I ended up with a private cooking lesson at Mama Noi's Cooking School, since everyone else in my group was Chinese and needed a Chinese guide. I ended up cooking Penang curry, pad thai, and chicken coconut soup. And Thai iced tea, which is delicious! I got to take home a cookbook for free, too, so hopefully I can keep cooking Thai food when I'm at home.
Going to Myanmar - Yes, I am putting a whole country as one of my highlights. I am so glad I went to Myanmar when I did, especially when I was so close to skipping it because of low season. Myanmar surprised me and ultimately touched my heart. It's competing with Thailand now as my favorite country ever, and I love Thailand.
Touring Bagan's temples with a local - 23-year-old Christopher grew up in Bagan, studied at a university nearby, and went to an ESL school for five months to practice his English. At Ostello Bello, you could sign up for a free, all-day tour of Bagan with him. We started at 7:30am and followed Christopher in a steady stream of motorbikes. I loved Chrisopher's enthusiasm and energy, his eagerness to learn English, and his knowledge of local history and customs. He was also the only local I met who was willing to discuss his country's time under military rule and some of the ethnic clashes that still take place in Myanmar. Since I've left Myanmar, I found out that Christopher was accepted into a program in Colombia to practice Spanish and English on a scholarship!
Taking a motorbike tour through HCMC - My cousin signed us up for motorbike tours of the city and this was one of my favorite things I've done so far! I still plan to write a blog post about it, but students studying tourism at Hoa Sen University take tourists on the back of their own motorbikes and drive around to their favorite spots around the city. We ate Vietnamese food at a local restaurant, took photos of the city lit up across the bridge, and got peach tea at a teenage hang-out spot near the opera house. The best part? Since the students are volunteers, the cost of the tour is only 70,000 dong / $3USD!
Chasing waterfalls in Da Lat - I signed up for a canyoning tour in Da Lat, Vietnam and didn't even know what it was. Turns out we went rappelling down waterfalls, cliff jumping, and water sliding! (Is water sliding a verb?). We also trekked through rivers, mud, fields, and forests throughout the 7-hour adventure. I was nervous to try the rappelling, but it reminded me of rock climbing and I got used to it pretty quick. The tour was also a prime example of how things work in Asia: few instructions, blind trust in your guide, and a willingness to just go with the flow.
Navigating a Thai post office - Who knew a Thai post office could be so confusing?! Mike and I went to the post office in Chiang Mai to finally ship stuff home. I had 8 pounds of clothing and souvenirs I wanted back to the US. Mike and I needed help choosing boxes that would fit our stuff, and then we couldn't figure out how to fold said boxes. A Thai woman took pity on us and helped us fold our respective boxes, then she came back over later to help us figure out how to close the boxes. After our boxes looked like actual boxes, we still had to fill out multiple forms with addresses and choose how we wanted to ship our items: Air Mail, Economy Air, or Sea Mail. Sea Mail takes 1-2 months, but only clost $30 to the US, so Sea Mail it was! But that wasn't it! Then we had to pick a number and wait to be called to pay for the shipping. But the numbers were being called in Thai. A Thai man then took pity on us (I love Thai people), looked at our numbers, and told the clerk in Thai that we needed our numbers called in English so we knew when to go to the counter. In the end, it all worked out, and I had a box heading to the US and Mike had one heading to Canada!
Saying goodbye - Ughhh I am so over goodbyes! They can go right next to those awful night buses. Mike and I flew out of Thailand on the same day (yes, we planned it that way). He was going to Malaysia and I was going to Myanmar. Looking back, I wish I had tried harder to convince him to come to Myanmar with me, but I didn't want to impose on his own solo adventures. We shared a taxi to the airport and a croissant at a café. Mike's flight left first. And I wanted to ask him to stay. But I watched him get on the plane and swallowed those words instead. I don't know why we convince ourselves that some things are better left unsaid.
How many night buses does it take to reach your bus limit? I am totally over night buses. I have never minded traveling overnight by bus and anyone who watches my IG stories will know that I am on a bus 99% of the time. But after squeezing in three overnight buses in ten nights during my stay in Myanmar, I was exhausted. The last bus from Inle Lake to Yangon was the worst, as a lot of it was over dirt roads and we had a crazy driver. But the worst part about the travel in Myanmar was the scheduling - all overnight buses leave at around 7pm, and arrive at 3am. Or 4am! In the dark, on the outskirts of town. I was often exhausted in Myanmar because I would crash on a hostel couch, try to get some sleep, be too tired to do much during the day, and couldn't check in until 2pm. Cue the migraine.
Suffering a migraine in Bagan - I suffer from migraines only twice a year and they are usually trigged by extreme stress or lack of sleep. In this case, it was lack of sleep and extreme heat. On the day I was supposed to catch a night bus to Inle Lake, I knew a migraine was coming on (my vision will get blurry). Worried that it could turn into a full-blown migraine where I wouldn't want to see the light of day, I left a tour early, paid $11 to have a room for half a day, and slept it off. Crisis averted.
The underwhelming sunrises and sunsets of Bagan - Because of the weather, the sunrises and sunsets over the infamous temples of Bagan didn't quite live up to the hype. Especially when a sunrise calls for a 4:30AM wake-up call. It was still a relaxing way to start the morning, but disappointing to leave with some not-so-stellar photos.
When it rains, it pours. Especially in Asia - Asia doesn't have winter (obvi). It has rainy season, which is characteriszed by soaring temperatures, increased humidity, and downpours in the afternoon. I have been traveling in summer heat for seven months now, and I never thought I would say this, but I would love any excuse to put on a comfy sweater and my favorite sweatpants, then curl up in a blanket in a log cabin. Maybe I am one of those people who really needs four seasons, because the weather is starting to get to me. I may actually be looking forward to winter this year. Crazy.
Waiting on that tax amendment... I made a mistake on my initial taxes in which I reported that I paid only $2,000 in tuition to IU when really, I paid $12,000! Big mistake that cost me an additional $1,500 in a tax refund. I had to file a tax amendment, email the documents to my mom, who then had to print and mail them. It takes up to four months to process a tax amendment. I'm on month three and still waiting. That $1,500 makes a big difference in how much money I'll come home with and how much I can spend in Canada, so I'm hoping this issue is cleared up sooner than later.
What student loans? Real life is inching its way back in. I got an email reminding me that my student loans, which I talked about in my How I Saved $10K for Travel in 5 Months post, go back into repayment in November. Gotta find that job when I go home!
Visiting the War Remnants Museum in HCMC - I'm going to save some of these details for a future blog post, but it's going to take some time for me to write it. The War Remnants Museum was three floors of confronting some of the American atrocities committed during the Vietnam War (called the American War by the Vietnamese), including the use of Agent Orange on civilians. It was an emotionally draining visit over several hours and I had to force my feet to move to the next photograph, the next exhibit. I'm going to visit another war museum in Hanoi towards the end of my trip, so I'll write the blog post to combine both visits.
I often write about my highlights and challenges on social media, but wanted a section to include small details that I usually forget by the end of the month.
I'm standing in the shower in a hostel in Bagan, Myanmar when the power suddenly goes out. It was the third time that day. Myanmar still has daily blackouts due to lack of electrical capacity.
Christopher, our eager and talkative tour guide for the day of the Bagan temples, loves practicing his English with us. He picks up a small flower and starts to explain its significance to us before pausing. "What would you call this? This small flower? It hasn't blossomed yet." "A bud," I said. He looks confused. "Well, then what's the difference between this"-- he points to his butt -- "and this?" as he points to the bud. I couldn't help but smile.
"Thank yoouuuu!" A child mimics my high-pitched, drawn out Midwestern accent after he hands me bananas I bought at a food stall, and so did a Vietnamese taxi driver as I hopped out of the car: "Thannkkk yooouuuu!"
I mean, I thought it was a little strange that they had pasta set out at breakfast in the hostel in Yangon, but carbs for breakfast isn't a bad thing. I pile some on my plate and take a mouthful. I instantly gag. The pasta is soaked in fish oil! Later I found out that the pasta was supposed to go into a soup, which is a traditional Burmese breakfast.
"She had just fell from her bike," my Chilean friend said when he was sharing a story with me. "Fallen," I corrected. "She had just fallen." Frederico paused. "Well, after she fallen, her motorbike was messed up." "Er, it should be 'after she fell'..." I said. "IS IT FALLEN OR FELL? WHY IS ENGLISH SO HARD?!?!"
A four-year-old boy stands stark naked on a side street in Yangon, Myanmar, organizing his family's fruit stand for the day. Further down the road, a father tries to get his toddler to smile by waving at the foreigner, me.
"I think your freckles are beautiful," he tells me as I scrutinize the many freckles sprinkled across my face from months of sun and sea.
Having a room to myself in my cousin's apartment in HCMC and not having to wear flip-flops in the shower! Oh, the joys of non-hostel life.
On the motorbike tour of HCMC with several Vietnamese college students, I hesitate to ask one of them a question. "Do the Vietnamese not like Americans? I mean, with the war and everything..." She hesitates. "My generation is different, I think. The millennials, you know. We didn't grow up with that war. It feels like a long time ago to us. I don't feel any negativity towards Americans." I breathe a sigh of relief. "Except, you know Agent Orange was pretty bad..." She says in a small voice. "Yeah, I know," I acknowledge, my head down.
My phone pings and I open WhatsApp: ten photos of my niece, who was two-years-old when I left and is now nearing three-years-old. Mila cuddling with my dad, Mila covered in band-aids because she likes them, Mila hiding beneath a chair with a huge smile on her face, Mila sitting on the steps next to our cat, Annabelle. It makes my heart want to go home.
I've changed the way I calculate my averages for each country -- the averages no longer include the price of the flight to that country. Those prices will be included in my overall total for my whole trip. So if I paid for a $200 flight to Singapore, I took that out of the transportation total for Singapore and it will instead show up in the overall spending and overall daily average at the end of my trip. All costs are in USD! Oh, and here's how I track all these finances.
Thailand - 11 days in May, 30 days total
Thailand Total (over 30 days): $1,250 ($41/day)
The last two weeks of my trip in Thailand were pricey because I did a lot in Chiang Mai: bungee jumping, a cooking class, a manicure, a luxurious Thai oil massage, and the elephant sanctuary. I was also with Mike a lot of the time, so we went to restaurants instead of street food stalls. My Etain category is basically my Alcohol category, so I did actually drink alcohol this month! Shocker.
Myanmar - 10 days
Myanmar Total: $388 ($38/day)
Accommodation isn't cheap in Myanmar, with my hostel in Bagan costing $20/night. I also bought two handmade skirts at a handicraft store in Yangon that supports local nonprofits in the country, so that cost me $45 (check out Pomelo!). But food and activities were pretty cheap, and the $50 visa was well worth the entire experience I had in Myanmar.
Vietnam - 10 days (so far)
Vietnam Total (so far): $234 ($23/day)
Vietnam is the cheapest country in all of Southeast Asia, with dorms costing $5/night and one meal costing .88 cents. My goal is to do one month in Vietnam for under $750. Don't be surprised to see this number shoot through the roof once I'm done buying tailor-made clothes, though! Ah!
Overall May Total: $1,170 ($37/day)
Overall Total: $10,707 ($48/day) for 7 countries, 7 months of travel, 6 international flights, and one year's worth of WorldNomads travel insurance
Pai: 762 Curves & Totally Worth It - The whole journey from Chiang Mai to Pai on the back of a motorbike. With Mike.
Taking the Circular Train Through Yangon - A look at the Burmese people living on the outskirts of Yangon, plus some of my favorite photos I've taken on my trip so far.
Celebrating Songkran in Phuket - What a better way to start my time in Thailand than with a massive water festival and new friends?
Caring for Elephants in Chiang Mai - One of the most humbling experiences I've been a part of.
A Girl's Trip to Myanmar's Only Winery - A bike ride to a winery ended up on me reflecting on all the amazing people I've met so far on this journey.
Inle Lake: A Peek at Burmese Life - From one-legged fishermen to children bathing in the lake, I loved seeing daily life play out on the water.
How I Beat Travel Burnout - I'm still going! Night buses and all.
Why the Time to Visit Myanmar is NOW - This stunning country is only going to keep changing with the times; here's why you should plan your trip sooner than later.
Books I've Read
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak - I finished this book on the same day I toured the War Remnants Museum in HCMC and the attack on Manchester Arena took place. The novel is narratted by Death and follows a young German girl as her family hides a Jew. It was a powerful book and unlike any other I've read, mainly because the narration was unique. It was also another sad reminder of what humans are capable of doing to other humans, which was a heavy pool to swim out of.
I just picked up the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie from the book shelf in this hostel. Can't hurt to pick up a few tips as a fundraiser, right?
I've slated one month for Vietnam (that's how long my visa is good for), so I plan to fly out of Hanoi on June 20. My original plan was to go to Laos and then Cambodia, but rainy season will be in full force by then and I'm not sure I want to endure poor road conditions and constant rain in two of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. I haven't decided yet, but Laos and Cambodia made have to wait for another trip. I'm wayyyy more inclined to head straight to Bali and get back to beautiful beaches, sunshine, and scuba diving.
After Indonesia, my trip will be winding down. I'll fly to Hong Kong then to Vancover, explore Canda and the Pacific Northwest for a bit, then board my flight home. Crazy. I can't even fathom this trip coming to an end yet. I don't wanna talk about it, ah!