Category Archives: solo travel

How Fast Can You Get Fluent in Spanish?

get fluent in spanish

We’ve all been there. After touching down and getting acclimated to your new country, it hits you: while you can say things like, “Where’s the airport?” or “How much is this?,” you have no clue how to order your favorite drink or where to go for a decent haircut.

Where’s your high school language teacher when you need them?

For those of you who are visiting or moving to a Spanish-speaking country, we’ve gathered the best Spanish decks from FactSumo, a newly launched mobile app devoted to making learning painless and easy.

(By the way, decks are these little “learning bursts” beamed to your smartphone in podcast form. You can choose to learn with video, audio, or a combination of both, and you can do it in 5 minute chunks throughout the day so you can get fluent in Spanish FAST.)

Because let’s face it  – you’ll never get fluent in Spanish just by asking for the bathroom all the time.

#1: Get Fluent Outside


Venturing out into the wilderness? So many Spanish-speaking destinations – think Spain, Mexico, Central and South America – offer warm climates with ample opportunities to get back to nature.

Use this camping vocabulary deck to learn BBQ in Spanish and other outdoorsy words and phrases.

#2: Get Fluent At The Doc

Working in healthcare? If you’re moving to a Spanish-speaking country to work or volunteer in the medical field, this medical instructions deck is the perfect way to break down the language barriers with patients.

#3: Get Fluent With Your Realtor

 

Staying for a while? Renting or buying a home is hard enough. Doing it in another language? Fuhgeddaboudit.

#4: Get Fluent At The Bank

Need some cash? FactSumo’s got your back when it comes to banking in your new Spanish-speaking country.

#5: Get Fluent With Your Stylist


Getting a haircut? Whether you need a men’s haircut for that sexy new travel partner, or a women’s haircut for your fab self, FactSumo will give you the words you need to look fab-u-lous.

#6: Get Fluent In The Powder Room


Leaking toilet? Find out why it won’t go down (or how to call the nearest plumber) with this deck all about plumbing. (Another alternative: live in a hotel or guest house so you don’t have to worry about your own plumbing. The pic above looks inviting, don’t you think?).

#7: Get Fluent At Yoga Class


Toning your bod? Catching a yoga class in Spanish was never easier with this deck about yoga poses and positions.

You can get by on a few basic words and phrases when you’re vacationing for a week or two somewhere. But when you’re living abroad, you need to be completely immersed. Knowing how to speak your way through everyday situations will save time and headaches. Happy learning!

To get started on your Spanish language immersion adventure, check out FactSumo.com.

 

What Puking in Parvarti’s River Taught Me About Life

“I am Parvati!”

She ambushes me, taking my face in her hands, her head jiggling from side to side in a way I’ve heard about but never actually seen until now.

“Are you okay? You are sick?”

Yes. Talk about a solo female travel fail – I’ve gotten food poisoning in the middle of an 8-hour motorbike journey, on the very day I’m supposed to be meeting Deepak’s family.

The timing could not be worse, and what’s more – I can’t. Stop. Puking.

Parvarti is the neighbor girl who lives next door to Deepak’s family, and her beauty trumps any that has yet to appear in these posts.

She is more fabulouss than the would-be Polish model at The Lemon Tree, more womanly than Mrs. DeKash, more angelic than Deepak in stolen moments under the covers.

Her dark hair hangs loose around her shoulders, free and wild where the other women’s hair is tightly bound and wrapped.

Her skin is pale, a stark palette that highlights the richness of her eyebrows, dark half moons sketched with God’s paintbrush.

Her nose is slightly upturned, which makes her look impish, like she’s planning a practical joke that you’re going to just love.

She takes my hand, touches my hair, inspects me all over with wonder and excitement.

I let her give me the once over as everyone else in the village stares, which is far more comfortable than the way my stomach feels after the putrid, stagnant water I just drank.

“Would you like to see my river?!” yells Parvarti, absolutely bubbling over.

How could I say no? I’ve never heard anyone refer to a river as their river, and for all I know she might mean that literally.

Besides, even if I had a knife sticking out of my stomach and had to choose between going to the ER and going to see Parvarti’s river, I’d pick the river.  She’s that charming.

The others make way for us, as enamored with her beauty as they are with my strangeness.

She is the darling of the farm, and I imagine suitors from the surrounding provinces descending in droves to beg her grandmother for her hand.

Parvarti takes my hand in hers, and for a moment I imagine myself her chosen suitor as we walk together across the dirt road towards the surrounding fields.

She leads me along a network of dirt pathways, helping me keep my balance without toppling onto the budding crops.

Each pathway is about two feet wide and a foot high, and runs the length of the land so that farmers can walk between crops without stepping on them.

“This my garden” says Parvarti, gesturing to the plot of land to our right. “I grow onion, tomato, cauli-flowers.”

“And this garden?” I ask, gesturing to the empty, overgrown, weed-infested plot to the left. “Is this yours too?”

“That Deepak garden” laughs Parvarti. “Is not very good.”

If I wasn’t so distracted by my nausea, I might be more inclined to investigate the obvious metaphor I’m now looking at – the lush, abundant field tended by Parvarti’s hand, and the hot, unattended mess that has been borne of Deepak’s neglect.

We make our way through the fields to a cluster of trees that lie along the banks of a bubbling brook.

“My river!” exclaims Parvarti proudly, looking at me to see if I’m impressed.

I withdraw my hand from hers, look wildly around for the best place to go, see nowhere, walk a few feet towards the water, and vomit right into Parvarti’s precious river.

“I’m sorry!” I gasp between wretches. She says nothing but waits, watches me, stands patiently by a tree.

Again. And again. Into the tall grass. Into her river. There is nothing to clean myself with, I am filth incarnate, I have never been so ashamed.

I dare to look at Parvati, who is doing the head bob at me, looking mildly concerned.

“I’m so sorry” I say again, not knowing what else to say. What are you supposed to say when you puke in someone’s river?

As we walk back to the house, me having completely defiled the most precious thing in her life, Parvarti takes my hand again and begins humming a soft little Hindi song.

She doesn’t care that I’m filthy. She doesn’t care that I’ve just vommed in her river, the only possession she has, the thing that is most precious to her in the entire world.

In fact, the entire episode, which seems incredibly dramatic and awful and unsettling to me, doesn’t seem to have ruffled her feathers at all.

She passes me off to the other women with an easy smile, certain that I’m going to feel better soon.

She leaves just as easily as she arrived, not knowing that she has dwarfed my childish, petulant ego with the might of her magnificent heart.

To be like Parvarti – filled with joy in the face of the everyday, unconcerned in the face of disaster – has become my only goal in life.

By Rebekah Voss. This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

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Operation Bikini Wax

The mission:

You have less than 24 hours to a find salon or an individual to give you a bikini wax (preferably with hard wax, because we all know what a disaster crappy Sally Hansen wax can be).

“It’s too easy!” you say. “There’s a place right down the street!” you say.

I wasn’t finished yet.

Not only do you desperately (desperately) need a bikini wax: you also happen to be on a remote island off the coast of Vietnam.

How remote, you ask? Well, there’s WiFi. There’s cell reception. But there are no computer repair shops, there’s nowhere to buy a cell phone charger should yours break, and there are no English-speaking women (none that you’re personally acquainted with, anyway.)

On your mark. Get set. Go!

12:32pm: Enemy Challenge

Truong: “Would you like to go to the beach with me tomorrow?”

That depends, cute Vietnamese guy I’m dating, is this the kind of beach where wild, hairy Alpacas are welcome to roam at will? Because after 4 months without seeing the inside of a salon, that’s exactly what I resemble.

12:34pm: Mission Identified

Me: “Sure. Um. Is Anh around, btw?”

Anh is my best bet – after all, she’s the one who gave me my awesome Vietnamese makeover, she’s the one who yells at me when I braid my wet hair, she’s the one who gives me free pedicures in the middle of her restaurant when there aren’t any customers around, and she’s the one who used to own a salon.

Problem: Anh speaks as much English as I do Vietnamese.

In the nearby capital city of  Hanoi, all of the young students I’ve met speak English beautifully.  If I had to generalize I’d say that the girls tend to have a better command of the language than the boys.

But here in small town Cat Ba, it is the men who tend to speak English, their wives nodding and smiling in the background.

I can’t tell if it’s because the women just don’t care to learn, or they want to learn but their husbands don’t let them, or they’re way too busy running the family business and raising the children while the men sit around smoking cigarettes and watching cricket (I sort of think it’s the last one).

This saddens me both from an empowerment standpoint and from a bikini wax standpoint.

Back home, I wouldn’t think twice about talking to a male friend about this kind of thing, but in Vietnam, it’s different, especially in Cat Ba.

Here you can’t even hug someone of the opposite sex in public. And you most certainly can’t discuss an intimate, personal matter like waxing with a man who’s not your husband.

Heck, the best I can get from my sweetie is a kiss on the cheek – and that’s only if it’s dark out and no one’s looking. So I can’t imagine bringing up the subject of waxing with one of my English-speaking male friends  – I might seriously cause some instances of cardiac arrest.

1:17pm: Location Surveillance

I go to the restaurant. Anh is there, smiling her placid smile, but everyone else is there too. Her husband, his brother, and half a dozen (male) staff under the age of 25.

I hem and haw and order a coffee, and then I remember the powerful tool I have in my pocket – my Google translate app!

1:31pm: Brush Contact

“Where can I get a bikini wax?”

I type the question into Google translate, hoping for the best. The translation includes the English word “bikini” but everything else is magically transformed to Vietnamese. Looks good!

“Anh! Pssssst, Anh!”

I wave her over and covertly show her my phone’s screen. She reads the question, doesn’t bat an eyelash, and nods her head without looking at me.

Stealthy! Anh clearly knows how to be discreet, and she also must know exactly where to go to get the weed whacking done.

1:34pm: Covert Operation

She disappears into the back of the restaurant and magically reappears with two motorbike helmets.

Score!

Anh says something to her husband in Vietnamese, and he looks at me and giggles.

Oh, no! Anh! I thought we had an understanding!

“You go with Anh, you go shopping now” he says.

Ohhhh, I see what she did there. Good thinking, Anh.

“Yes!” I say. “We go shopping!”

I wink at Anh and she winks back and smiles at me. This was so much easier than I thought it would be, especially since I haven’t seen waxing offered as an option on any of the salon signs in town.

Anh probably has a friend who’ll do it in her back room. Or maybe Anh herself can do it – I sort of don’t want her poking around down there, what with us being as close as two people could be without speaking the same language, but oh well. I’m on a mission, after all. Some sacrificial awkwardness is to be expected.

1:47pm: In the Field

We’re off!

Anh’s motorbike races down the main drag, past restaurants and hotels, and makes a sharp right towards the local market.

For some reason we stop here and park. Fruit sellers and baskets of vegetables and electronic stands and shoe stalls are packed on top of one another, creating a loud, smelly, vibrant city within a city.

There are plastic shoes for sale, and fish sauce, dried pork, sweating fruit, leafy greens, duck eggs and knock off designer clothing. So it stands to reason there could also be a woman somewhere in the bowels of the market just waiting to pour hot wax on my hoo ha.

1:49pm: Gloria the Mole

I follow Anh through the market, my flip flopped feet stepping carefully around mysterious puddles of stank liquid.

She stops at a vegetable seller squatting in front of huge baskets of garlic. They exchange a few words, and I imagine she’s asking “Hey Gloria, does Debbie still do waxing, and is she still in the same location?”

1:51pm: Secret Lair

Anh thanks Gloria for what must have been an affirmative answer and we continue on, swimming from the primarily food section of the market to an outdoor mall of covered tents packed with clothing.

We step into an enormous closet. I feel like Alice after she’s gone through the lookinglass – rack upon rack stacked 20 feet high, pants and blouses and dresses leering at me from every angle.

Anh smiles brightly and rifles through the nearest rack until she finds what she’s looking for – a top in XL. She holds it up to me and says “Big! Big for you!”

One of the favorite topics of my friends here in Cat Ba is how large I am, especially compared with the tiny man I am dating.

Dear reader, I am 5’6” on a good day, and about 135lbs. And to them, I am the epitome of obesity. They are very concerned about my health, and everyday demand that I wake up at 5am to exercise with them (this has yet to happen).

2:07pm: The Drop Point

I pay the cashier 1 million dong – about $50 – and emerge from the closet with a new dress, and several Anh-approved (XL) outfits. Anh is very happy because the tunic top she’s chosen for me hides my stomach.

Fine. Good. We had been meaning to go shopping for a while, so I’m glad that’s out of the way. Now we’re going for my wax, right?

2:15pm: Anh’s tries a Starbust Maneuver

Anh straddles the motorbike and hangs her many plastic bags onto the bike’s convenient hooks. We’ve been to the pharmacist, to buy shoes for her husband, and to buy tank tops for my sweetie to wear while cooking in the steamy kitchen.

Is it possible that Anh…..didn’t understand what I meant when I wrote “bikini wax”?

“I need bikini wax” I say again, gesturing vaguely to my nether regions.

Anh smiles and nods, gesturing for me to get on the scooter already.

Ok, phew. I’m probably being really annoying. Clearly we just needed to run a few errands, and now we’ll go get waxed.

2:32pm: Back at Camp Swampy

Back at the restaurant. Anh just wanted to drop off everything we’d bought. We give the guys their gifts, Anh puts the vegetables in the fridge, I stand up to leave again and she….sits down. And pours herself some tea.

2:34pm: Abort?

My sweetie emerges from the kitchen just long enough to smile at me and say “beach tomorrow!”

I muster up as much enthusiasm as possible and smile at him, nodding.

As soon as he leaves, all decorum goes out the window. This is now officially an emergency.

2:33pm: Canary Trap

“Mr. Twin? I need….I need wax.”

Mr. Twin, Anh’s English-speaking husband, stares at me blankly. Anh just smiles and nods.

Oh, crap.

In this moment I realize that Anh smiling and nodding does not, in fact, mean “Yes, I understand” but instead means “I don’t have a clue what you’re saying but I like you and want to be polite.”

How the hell did Google translate “I need a bikini wax” into “Let’s go shopping for XL clothing right now”?!

“Mr. Twin, please. I need….”

I gesture ripping hair off my arm.

He’s not getting it.

“Much hair, Mr. Twin. I need off. No hair for me, please. Where can I go?”

His eyes suddenly light up in recognition, and for a second I think I’m in.

“You want hair gone?”

“Yes! Please! Where can I go to get hair gone?”

“I can do” says Mr. Twin, which is his answer for everything from cooking to teaching English to his daughter to hunting wild birds to online marketing. (and in most of those cases, he really actually can do.)

I blush, hoping Truong can’t hear our conversation.

“No, no, you don’t understand.”

“I can do!” Mr. Twin insists. “Many women come to me and I do. I do like this.”

He mimes the action of threading eyebrows.

“Not there” I say, gesturing again to other areas of my body without going for the gold. Meanwhile, Anh is happily sipping her tea, engrossed in her phone.

“I do anywhere!” says Mr. Twin. “The chin, the lip, hair gone anywhere.”

Last chance: give up or go for the jugular?

I think of Truong, hairless Truong with woven silk skin the color of caramel, lounging in the sand and surf like a Vietnamese Adonis.

And me on the beach  next to him in long pants.

“Mr. Twin, I need no hair..for swimsuit.”

And then it happens. I, a grown woman, standing in the middle of a restaurant, speaking to my friend’s husband right in front of her, point to my vagina.

Mr. Twin dies laughing.

“Noooooooo!!!!” he roars. “I cannot do there!”

And then “Truong! Come here!”

No no no no no don’t call Truong, pleeeeeease.

“I cannot do for you there, but maybe Mr. Truong must do for you!!!”

“But Mr. Twin, please, can someone do? Someone on Cat Ba can do for me?”

He says something to Anh in Vietnamese, who suddenly looks very surprised, and shakes her head ‘no.’

“No one” says Mr. Twin.

“Cannot do” says Mr. Twin.

I give up, defeated.

Maybe I can suggest a hike instead of the beach? Or a boat ride? Or anything where the entire lower half of my sasquatchian body can remain covered?

2:41pm: Mission Impossible

OPERATION BIKINI WAX: 100% FAIL

Here’s what I’m dying to know – what the hell did Anh read when she looked at my phone? What had I accidentally written in Vietnamese?!

And worse, what on earth did she think when I asked again in the market and gestured to the area below my waist?!!!

And finally, the fact that there is no waxing available on Cat Ba does not mean that Vietnamese women just let themselves go – I’ve never met a group of ladies so pleasantly obsessed with beauty, so pulled together, so fashionable, so diligent about straightening their hair and making sure each painted nail is perfectly glossed at all times – even if – no, especially if – they spend their days peeling garlic and washes dishes and shelling crab underneath the hot sun.

Which leads me to believe that they don’t NEED bikini waxing, because just like my hairless honey, they are blessed with this smooth, silken, velvety skin – sort of like human versions of hypoallergenic cats.

I wish I was a hypoallergenic cat. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a hypoallergenic va jay jay.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. You may not get a bikini wax on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam - best take care of your business in Hanoi before you come.

2. Google Translate is not only FLAT OUT WRONG, the translations it comes up with are specific and absurd!

3. There is no way to communicate "bikini wax" without pointing to your hoo ha. If you find a way to do so please let me know.

4. If you are an esthetician of some sort, you could make a killing on Cat Ba because you will have zero competition and hordes of hairy tourists in need of your services.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Driveby Banana-ing in Bucharest

This kid will not take no for an answer. I’ve been trying to shake him for blocks now, but in his thuggish persistence he’s latched onto me like a burr and won’t let go – not until I cough up “uno leu.”

He’s small, clean, well-dressed, with designer sneakers and a tricked-out baseball cap. His dark eyes contain more than a hint of malice which he tries to cover up with upturned eyebrows and a begging pout.

“Per favore” he begs, pressing his palms together in supplication. “Uno leu, uno leu!”

He’s mysteriously Italian, which makes me wonder if there’s a pocket of expats somewhere in the city cooking up something slightly more edible than the unlucky slop I’ve encountered thus far in the old town of Bucharest.

“No money” I say again, smiling at him. I should really stop smiling, because he seems to take that as a sign of encouragement.

It is 7am on a Saturday morning and all the shop doors are closed. The streets become increasingly empty as we walk north toward Herăstrău Park.

Unfortunately this tasted as questionable as it looked.

Unfortunately this tasted as questionable as it looked.

Something about this kid scares me, and my awareness of the deserted streets stokes a growing flame of fear. He can’t be more than ten years old, but he’s tough, hardened by some sort of evil upbringing.

“Where is your mother?” I ask in English.

“Mia madre è morta” he replies in Italian, then immediately regrets it.

He’s just slipped and revealed that he understands every word I say.

“Ah ha!” I say, pointing at him, grinning.

I’m slightly terrified that a) he’s packing, and b) he has a group of 10 hoodlums waiting around the corner to mug me and beat me with their tiny fists, but I like him just the same.

We seem to have an understanding – I understand that he has to beg me and follow me, he understands that I have to say no.

That is, until I bust out the banana.

This has gone on way too long, we’re too far from the safety of my hotel, and there’s not a soul around to hear me if I scream. Self-protective mode kicks in to overdrive.

I face him and step back several feet so that I can reach into my bag without the risk of him trying to do the same.

There will be no one to hear you scream....

There will be no one to hear you scream….

I fish around with my hand, keeping my eyes on him the entire time.

“I’m not going to give you any money” I repeat for the umpteenth time, “but if you’re hungry, you can have my breakfast.”

I pull out the banana I’d grabbed from the hotel.

He looks at it, looks at me, and his eyes roll back in his head like some sort of Italian-Romanian demon only found in ancient folklore.

Wanting desperately to appease the devil, I thrust the banana toward his hand, which has gathered into a trembling fist.

“Here, take it.”

He does. And then proceeds to raise it above his head, rear back, and throw the banana at me with all the force and magnitude of a 7th inning pitcher.

The banana splatters at my feet, fibrous strands and mush flying everywhere, and I’m backing away, sputtering, as if I’ve just been shot.

He backs away too like a lightning-fast crab, scuttling back towards the hotel.

And then, to add insult to injury, my little friend, the one I understand, the one with whom I have a connection, the one whose soul concerns me greatly, issues the following curse in absolutely perfect, accent-free English:

“FUCK YOU!”

He holds out his middle finger for good measure, and continues to scream, with a bellowing force, “FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU! FUCK YOU!”

Over and over again he screams, until my heart is ready to crack my ribcage wide open. I command my legs to move, move!, to create as much distance between us as fast as I possibly can.

Not where you want to be when a terrifying child is threatening you with a banana

Empty streets – not where you want to be when a terrifying child is threatening you with a banana

I glance back over my shoulder, terrified he’s right behind me with a weapon, with his brother, with his pimp.

But he’s dwarfed by the distance, growing ever-smaller as I break into a full-out run.

There is no one to hear the pounding of my steps on the pavement, no one to see the tears streaming down my face.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Just because someone's a sweet-looking kid doesn't mean they won't throw at a banana at you.

2. If someone is following you, walk TOWARD the crowds of other people, not away from them.

3. Be extra careful when opening your bag or purse in the presence of a stranger - especially a stranger who has asked you for money.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Luxury Travel on a Backpacker’s Budget

“The best things in life are free. The second-best things are very, very expensive.” ~ Coco Chanel

You can experience the wonders of luxury travel on a backpacker’s budget.

How do I know?

Because the most luxurious time in my life was spent traipsing through Asia for 13 months with nothing but a backpack and a laptop.

Let me explain.

By luxury travel, I’m talking about the energized, eye-opening kind of travel that makes your heart burst out of your chest and your soul dive headlong into the present moment.

Sure, there might be a fancy hotel room involved, or a tropical drink sweating in the palm of your hand, but those things aren’t the point. Those things aren’t what makes travel luxurious.

luxury-travel-1

True luxury can’t be bought. Oh sure, you can spring for a stay at an all-inclusive resort, guiltily tip your dedicated waitstaff as they tidy your 16-bedroom beachfront bungalow, or enjoy wine tastings on a yacht made of diamonds.

All of that’s well and good, but none of it is enough to make you feel luxurious in your mind and your heart.

True luxury is time. True luxury is freedom. True luxury is a break from stress, responsibility, and the cares of the world.

luxury-travel-2

There’s nothing more luxurious than freedom.

 

While traveling long-term in Asia, I experienced true luxury travel even though I was more “flashpacker” than luxe traveler.

By working as I traveled and carefully choosing midrange hotels, I experienced the luxury of having money for the first time in my life.

  • I ate out every single meal
  • I stayed in high-rise beachfront hotels
  • I stayed in riverfront bungalows
  • I had my laundry sent out
  • I even splurged on the occasional massage or mani/pedi!

…and all of this on a budget of about $15-$25/day.

But the perks of being an American traveling in South and Southeast Asia had little to do with the threadcount of my sheets or the view from my hotel room.

Simply having the free time to travel and the money to see, eat, and do whatever I wanted was easily the most luxurious experience of my life.

luxury-travel-4

True luxury is being able to afford meals and restaurants you never could at home.

 

Now, in order to experience this kind of luxury travel, choosing the right destination is key. I could probably have never gotten away with this in Europe, or North America, or even in pricier Asian cities like Shanghai or Ho Chi Minh City.

But by choosing destinations that were more affordable, I was able to live as luxury traveler on a budget of about $15/day.

Da Nang: The most luxurious budget travel destination in Southeast Asia

Da Nang is as beautiful as Vancouver BC except sunnier and cheaper.

Da Nang is as beautiful as Vancouver BC except sunnier and cheaper.

Da Nang, Vietnam is one of the best luxury travel destinations on the planet, regardless of your definition of luxury.

There are scores of resorts that line the coast between China Beach and Hoi An, and they run the gamut from $200/night hotels to $10,000/night luxury villas.

But Da Nang is truly decadent because of the possibilities for backpackers and midrange travelers.

  • The beautiful beaches lining China Beach are free and open to the public. If you’d like to drink or dine somewhere posh right on the water, you can enjoy happy hour for less than $10 USD.
  • There are amazing outdoor seafood restaurants everywhere in Da Nang. They offer fresh-caught, live seafood in all shapes and sizes. Customers get to point to their lunch and enjoy ice-cold cans of Bia La Rue while their lobster is being boiled to perfection. You can have a seafood bonanza for two for less than $15 USD.
  • Monkey Mountain commands a skyline that overlooks a glistening city of bridges and sparkling architecture. It’s free to explore the mountain and there’s only a nominal cost to gain entrance to the Lady Buddha statue (Vietnam’s tallest!), which guards the East Sea like an angelic Madonna.
True luxury travel: feeling free on a Vietnamese beach in a weird outfit.

True luxury travel: feeling free on a Vietnamese beach in a weird outfit.

Luxury abounds throughout the world, but it’s possible to experience luxury travel without breaking the bank.

For me, the true mark of luxury lies in the freedom of low-cost living. Being able to truly relax and enjoy each destination is infinitely more luxurious than any yacht or swanky resort could ever be.

What does luxury travel mean to you?

 

 

Don’t F*$! With Mother India

I was 22 years old and on my way to sit in the Vipassana meditation course in Jaipur, India. It was spring of 1997. I had been traveling in India mostly alone for a few months by this time.

I was feeling resistance to the impending 10 day meditation, and I had an hour before I needed to be in the main meditation hall for the commencement of the course. I decided to distract my nerves by walking through the forest to the chai hut about 20 minutes away.

When I got to the grubby little roadside hub where the nearest rural village gathered to drink chai and wash clothes in the river, there were several young men sitting on the bridge, eyeing me as I walked past.

It was the same ignorant stare of base male desire that I experienced every day in India…on the bus, in the street. I had learned to ignore it.

But this time, something in my intuition perked up. These boys were latching on to my energy. I felt nervous about walking back to the meditation retreat alone, which entailed a 15 minute stretch through rural forest.

I bucked up my courage and went for it. As soon as I walked back across the bridge, I had a flash of knowing. These motherfucking dumb peasant punks were going to follow me.

Sure enough, I could sense that after I had passed, all three nonchalantly got up and started walking after me…keeping about 30 paces behind. I walked with quick determination, my fury and concern growing.

gang-rape-in-india-1997-2

As I could hear their approach, I started to fill with rage….and a strange involuntary reflex started to occur inside me.

Time slowed down. With every step I took, I could feel power coming up through my feet out of the Earth…coiling inside me with powerful wrath. It was as though the power of the goddess Kali was sucking up from the hot lava center of the Earth through my feet…steaming into a pressure of rage and power.

I felt them getting closer, and I KNEW that they were going to grab me and drag me into the bushes.

I walked faster, the contained fury filling me up with every step. As I sensed one of the men coming right up behind me, suddenly a flood of pure primal anger spewed forth like lava from the depths of the Earth and raged up through my body like a Volcano.

I felt a hand grab my shoulder…I spun around and – TIME STOPPED. One of the two men was grabbing me. His two friends were right behind, laughing and heading toward the bushes. Their intention was crystal clear. The ignorance of their gesture filled me with primal rage.

With one deep inhalation, my spirit suddenly inflated like a cobra, and with an exhaled PRIMAL ROAAARRRRRRR, for an INSTANT, I manifested as GREAT GODDESS KALI in her MOST WRATHFUL FORM.

The man’s first impulse was to raise his arm to hit me, but in a split second, his face changed. A look of sheer horror shot across his face.

His eyes became wide and his face became white with fear.

Kali was a language that his peanut-sized brain understood. In that moment, he SAW the GODDESS.

He turned on his heel and sprinted away for his life. His friend’s hadn’t seen my shape-shifting transformation, so they had one-second of confusion…looking at me, then looking at him running away. As he was the alpha of the group, they quickly decided to follow in his footsteps, and they all packed off with their tails between their legs, running as fast as they could go.

gang-rape-in-india-1997

I turned on my heel and walked on toward the Meditation Center, shaken by the experience, and sat in complete silence for 10 days through the incredibly healing experience of the Vipassana meditation.

May God bless S.N. Goenka for his commitment to teaching the medicine of meditation.

May all ignorant beings awaken to the intelligence of the Universe.

May all mothers teach their sons to respect Goddesses in all forms.

May all women be protected from abuse and violence, and have access to the innate strength that dwells within.

May all beings be free of suffering and fear.

India is a powerful entity. Traveling there as a woman is very risky. One must have a strong psychology and sense of street smarts. If you don’t have it when you go, you will definitely have it when you leave.

Don’t take Mother India lightly. She is Life, and She is also Death. Most of all, She is MAGIC.

Don’t Fuck with the MOTHER.

Elsa Bella

 

Elsa Bella is a world traveler who currently runs The Jaguar Project, a conservation project that protects the habitats of jaguars throughout Central America. You can join in saving the jaguars by clicking here

 

Gratitude in 365 Days of Travel

It’s amazing how the idea of gratitude can change so drastically.

Last Thanksgiving,  I was grateful to be embarking on an adventure to Nepal that I thought would last a few months, tops.

This Thanksgiving, I’m celebrating 365 days abroad, and a year that has changed my life in ways I never could have imagined.

Last year, I was grateful for my snazzy new boots from DSW.

This year, I’m grateful for things like hot water. And my health. And having shoes in the first place – any shoes at all. 

Don’t get me wrong – I’ll probably never outgrow my deep-held appreciation of a really great pair of knee-high’s. 

But the difference – after experiencing abject poverty and limitless kindnesses and the feeling of knowing the world to be good, and safe, and filled with love – is that now I’m not grateful for the boots themselves.

I’m grateful for the means to buy them. 

What’s more, I’m grateful for the feet within the boots –

….feet that have taken me across 6 countries and countless cities in the past year.

….feet that have managed to march me away from all of my preconceived notions.

…..feet that have taken me a step back from my former life, and step forward into something new.

I’m grateful for all of you. 

This community is what drives me to keep writing, keep exploring, and keep telling stories. 

In the past 8 months, The Happy Passport blog has morphed from a personal travel blog to a platform that shares YOUR greatest travel tales.

It is with deepest thanks that I hand over the reigns to you, the reader.

For if I’ve learned one lesson besides gratitude this year, it’s to listen more than I talk. 

What are you most grateful for today? 

Let me know by leaving a comment below. 

Happy Thanksgiving,

Rebs

 

I Dream of Cyprus…

For the past few years I’ve been slightly obsessed with the idea of traveling to Cyprus, Turkey, and Greece.  And by obsessed, I mean I’ve been pinning white-washed bungalows and electric-blue harbors on Pinterest like it’s going out of style.

I mean, what could possibly be more alluring, more indulgent, more idyllic  than swimming in one of those shallow, expansive resort pools – the ones conveniently located right next to a sparkling turquoise ocean – while sipping ouzo and lazily gazing upon stone houses built right into the mountainside?

Southeast Asia is tame. Western Europe is tired. A journey to Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and the like feels impossibly exotic; a chance to brush up against the nucleus of the ancient past, the birthplace of Western civilization, and trace the roots of your own soul back across the millennia.

Besides stepping upon the same soil as the ancient mystics and treading in the footsteps of gods and philosophers, playwrights and poets, mythic creatures and faces that launched a thousand ships, a journey to this part of the world is a journey into the heart of our most passionate modern-day dramas.

Night view of the Paphos Castle (Paphos, Cyprus). Stupid beautiful.

Night view of the Paphos Castle (Paphos, Cyprus). Stupid beautiful.

The proximity of Syria, of Iraq, or Israel and Egypt makes a journey to Turkey and Greece like buying a ticket to humanity’s fiercest boxing match – you’re not quite inside the ring, but ringside seating is readily available.

Excitement, beauty, conflict, danger, the birthplace of the world and the imminent threat of the death of that world, all in one place. It’s as if this part of the planet is the heart of humanity itself, forever beating in and out as the human race strives to lower its own blood pressure.

But Cyprus! The conflicted island, torn between Turkey and Greece, floating in the Mediterranean sea like a polished jewel. It’s packed with the requisite bars, clubs, and white sand beaches, but the Cyprus holidays you can book offer a much richer experience of the island.

Pissouri village in Cyprus. I am annoyed by how gorgeous this is.

Pissouri village in Cyprus. I am annoyed by how gorgeous this is.

Check out Aphrodite’s Rock, rumored to be the birthplace of the goddess herself, before exploring the Tombs of the Kings in the island’s famed Paphos region. Take in sweeping views of the surrounding sea from Kykkos Monastery, set over 1300 meters high atop the Troödos Mountains. While you’re mountainside, you’ll probably be tempted to check out one of the nine – nine! – UNESCO world heritage sites that dot the foothills and peaks in breathtaking abundance.

Spending holidays in Cyprus is sort of like combining your trip to Turkey and Greece into a single adventure – and not just because the island is disputed by the two countries.

That’s not to say I’ve given up on the white-washed wonder of Santorini, or the blue-domed mosques of Istanbul. I’ve simply found a new starting point from which to begin my exploration of this fascinating region.

Aphrodite's birth place at sunset in Cyprus. STUPID GORGEOUS.

Aphrodite’s birth place at sunset in Cyprus. STUPID GORGEOUS.

 

If you’re as enamored with Cyprus as I am, check out FirstChoice to book your trip to Cyprus. I really dig this site because it gives you all the info you need, including maps of the area (crucial!), a detailed layout of the different districts on Cyprus, places to go, stuff to do, weather and seasonal tips, and what you can expect to pay for it all.  Even better, you can book flights, hotels, and packages without having to navigate away from the page. It’s sort of like Lonely Planet meets TripAdvisor meets WikiTravel.

Late afternoon view of the Paphos Castle (Paphos, Cyprus)

Late afternoon view of the Paphos Castle (Paphos, Cyprus)

While many may plan on visiting Cyprus for the nightlife or beautiful beaches, my inner nerd is far more excited to climb upon Aphrodite’s Rock (not sure if you can do that, but still), watch a play in a 2,000-year old outdoor theatre overlooking the sea, and spend my afternoons marveling at the mosaic floors of the House of Achilles.

Have you been to Cyprus? What about Turkey or Greece? 

Am I mistaken in my newfound wanderlust for Cyprus?

 

YE OLDE DISCLAIMER: This post was contributed by FirstChoice because they’re awesome. I never recommend products, services, or websites that I wouldn’t use myself. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Cyprus suddenly trumps Turkey and Greece for the top slot on my travel bucket list.

2. You can book Cyprus holidays that combine crystal blue waters and white sand beaches with amazing history and culture.

3. The Troödos Mountains on Cyprus are home to 9 different UNESCO world heritage sites.

4. Cyprus is stupid beautiful and I hope to see you there in 2015!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Murder, Mayhem, and an Asshole from New York (Part 1)

There were two Turkish restaurants in town. They stood side by side, on the gravel road that hugged the north side of the lake, and were owned by the same man.

The restaurant on the left served the same food as the restaurant on the right, and the owner tended to serve whichever crowd was largest, which would often force diners at the neglected restaurant to migrate to the busier one in hopes of being served.

The service was notoriously slow, the food notoriously delicious, and on a particular December evening a hungry pack of travelers had gathered to partake in shared plates of fried eggplant and manti with thick yogurt and pilaf and beer, endless bottles of dirt cheer beer in dusty bottles.

They sat on the floor on plush pillows, and friends trickled in one by one, in twos and fours, until the dimly-lit restaurant with the low ceiling was filled with foreign tramps and vagabonds – the British guy from India, the brunette writing the travel book, the American  woman who’d cycled South America, the Ecuadorian couple who’d just trekked the Annapurna circuit, and the spritely 20-year old in her sixth month of solo-cycling the planet.

Soon locals mixed with tourists and there was no rhyme or reason to the cozy haven, which spun with an energy the romantics among them would later describe as magical.

The fragrance of incense mixed with the scent of minced meat and sizzling vegetables. Candles served as the only source of light save a dim lamp with a tasseled shade that illuminated the host stand in the corner.

The feeling of being in the right place at the right time was palpable – this evening, this moment was exactly why everyone in the room had made the journey to Nepal, and why they traveled in the first place; to slip inside the beating heart of earth’s eternal family, to become one with the mind of the planet, to feel like they belonged precisely because of their differences.

And then two assholes had to go and ruin the whole thing.

The first asshole was this awful woman from New York,  a restaurant patron sitting a few tables away whom Chris never would have noticed if the American and the brunette hadn’t suddenly rolled their eyes in unison at the sound of her voice.

“I can’t stand it” said the American.

Right?!” agreed the brunette in irritation. “New Yorkers.”

“How can you tell she’s from New York?” asked Chris, baffled and impressed.

“That accent” said the brunette.

“The volume” said the American.

 “The complaining” said the 20-year old cyclist, who was Canadian, but apparently could spot a New Yorker when she heard one across the din of a tiny Turkish restaurant.

The Ecuadorians chatted with each other in Spanish, quite oblivious to the fact that had they understood English better, they too would have been suitably irritated.

“OH MY GOD I KNOW, RIGHT?” shouted the voice, completely oblivious to the agreed-upon volume levels that had been subliminally determined by everyone else in the restaurant.

Once it was pointed out to him, the bright, grating voice of the New York asshole was all Chris could hear. He made a mental note to be more like the Ecuadorians, and only travel to countries where he did not speak the language. When you don’t know what people are saying, he thought, it’s much easier to like them.

“EXCUSE ME? EXCUSE ME! HELLO! OH MY GOD OUR WAITER IS NOT EVEN – HI. HELLO. WE HAVE LIKE, ZERO NAPKINS AT OUR TABLE. NAP-KINS. TISSUE? YEAH. CAN YOU BRING SOME, LIKE, ASAP? THAT MEANS RIGHT NOW, NOT IN LIKE, THREE HOURS. THAAAAANK YOUUUUUU.”

They all listened to the obnoxious symphony for a few moments, the Americans and the Canadian shuddering.

“Holy shit” breathed Chris softly. “It’s positively dreadful.”

They nodded at him solemnly, sighing into their eggplant.

“The way we feel about her must be the way the rest of the world feels when they hear Americans speak” said the brunette.

Everyone agreed with the astute observation.

“…AND THEN I WAS LIKE, I’M FROM NEW YORK! I MEAN, AM I RIGHT?”

“She like a caricature of herself” mused Chris.

“It’s not completely her fault” said the brunette, ever the diplomat. “Her city is so big and loud that she has to compete to survive. She’s under the impression that if she doesn’t scream, she won’t be heard. If she doesn’t scream, she’ll die.”

“But we’re not in New York” said Chris.

“Touché” said the brunette, grinning.

Just then, as if demonstrating the validity of their observations, the New York asshole called  out across the entire dining room to the waiter, breaking about 17 cultural subtleties of dining in a Turkish restaurant in Nepal.

The entire dining process in Nepal takes quite a bit longer than it does in the West, because it is assumed that you are dining out for the experience, not simply to assuage your growing hunger.

That’s why it takes 20 minutes for your order to be taken, another 15 for the beer to come, and so on. Sometimes you have to eat a meal right before you go out to dinner, just so you don’t starve before your food arrives.

It’s also not customary for the waiter to bring you your bill; it would be considered rude, as if the proprietor was throwing you out of the restaurant before you were ready to leave. If you are ready for the bill, you must ask for the bill.

In typical American fashion, the New York asshole assumed that the lack of attention to her and her table wasn’t a cultural idiosyncrasy of Nepal, but a personal affront to her and a sign of deliberate neglect.

EXCUSE ME, CAN WE GET OUR CHECK, PLEASE? GOD.”

“If I murder her right now, will you visit me in Nepalese jail?” whispered the brunette to Chris.

“Only every single day” he whispered back.

It was ironic, though not inappropriate, that she’d brought up the topic of murder.

Especially since one was about to take place when the second asshole of the evening stepped through the back door of the Turkish restaurant, the one on the right, wielding a butcher knife in his right hand.

For Part 2, click here.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

7 Ways to Get Hotel Discounts in Asia

Do you know how to get hotel discounts and guest house deals in Asia?

I know, saving money on places where you’d like to stay doesn’t sound that sexy – but the more money you save = the more you can travel, and that’s not just sexy, that’s orgasmic! So read on!

Travelling independently in Asia, almost every price is negotiable.

Yes, that’s including the price of your washing powder at the corner shop, and your headache tablets at the pharmacy. So I always negotiate the price of my room.

How do I do that?

I never book through accommodation booking sites.

They operate on commission, so their price will always be higher than booking direct.

Plus, you can’t negotiate price and room type…

And you can’t request a free pick up from the station…

And you can’t ask about other aspects of the guest house…

And you can’t get a feel for the service you might expect when you get there…

And you can’t start to build a relationship with the staff…

So I always negotiate with guest houses directly.

How? If you’ve never done it before, don’t worry one bit. It’s easy. Even if you don’t like bargaining, it’s easy to do over email, and not embarrassing at all:

Step 1 – Research guest houses online and choose a few options

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I tend to use Trip Advisor, and initially search by price. Watch out for a couple of things:

[i] Dates of reviews – Things can change amazingly quickly as staff and seasons come and go – only focus on recent reviews.

[ii] Nationality of reviewers – Travellers from different parts of the world can have really different opinions about everything, including how clean a place is and how far it is from the town centre.

As a Western woman, when I’m researching accommodation in Asia, I look for places with reviews from other Westerners. Especially for India, I look for reviews from other Western women – not those only reviewed by Indian men. [You usually get a quick idea of the reviewer’s nationality from the name and location on their review].

Step 2 – Check prices on accommodation sites

Search the internet for the few guest houses you’re interested in.  If they show up on accommodation booking sites, note the best price they’re offering [Hostelworld, Booking.com and Agoda are good for Asia].

Unless you’re really short of time and really not worried about price, don’t book through them!

Step 3 – Find contact details

Check that internet search again to find an email address or Facebook page for each of your chosen guest houses. If they have web or social media sites they’re often not in English, but you’ll still be able to find contact information on them – or the Trip Advisor forums can often help.

Step 4 – Write to ask for best prices

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I try to communicate some interest and enthusiasm in a place, hoping that’ll encourage the reader to help me [and because I am usually genuinely interested and enthusiastic about a place!] If you’re not sure how to start, you can always look up the weather and refer to that:

Hello WXY guesthouse

I hope you’re really well in X X and not feeling too hot – the internet says it’s going to be 38 degrees today!

I’m an English lady who would love to stay with you next month. I’ve always wanted to visit X X and your guest house sounds great.

What’s the very best price you can offer me for a stay in a single room with fan and balcony, from Monday X November – Sunday Y November [a stay of 6 nights]?

Looking forward to hearing from you soon, and sending very best wishes

Hilary : )

Ms Hilary Mehew hilarymehew@hotmail.com

Step 5 – Agree to the price and book

If you get a price back that’s the same or higher than you’ve seen on a booking site, quote that, asking for a better rate because you can book directly and save them from paying commission.

If you know you want to stay long term, try to get a better price by offering to pay on a weekly basis.

If they really won’t better the price, ask to have free breakfast thrown in with the deal, or a room upgrade, or something else you want.

From the offers you get, and from the “feel” you get for the place [often as important as price!] you’re ready to choose and book.

Step 6 – Ask for free pick up

Fancy a free pick up from the local bus/train station or airport? Ask for one [or failing a free one, a reduced priced one].

Check if they have any guests they’re taking back to the station/airport at the time you arrive – this option often works, especially for airport transfers, when all you have to pay for is the driver’s waiting time and parking charges between someone else’s drop off and your collection.

Step 7 – Re-confirm 3 days before

get-hotel-discounts-3

I usually do this by forwarding the last email between us, so they can easily see all the agreed arrangements re dates, room type, price, pick up arrangements etc, and tell them how much I’m looking forward to staying with them.

And that’s it!

Honestly, this approach has never failed me. Even when I couldn’t get a better rate, I’ve been able to negotiate a better room, or something else free or discounted, or at the very least got advance notice of when a special promotion will be on.

I also really appreciate arriving at a guest house, having got to know one or more staff members by name over the email, and receiving a very personal welcome.

Welcome to XYZ guesthouse and have a great stay…

hilary-mehew-headshotHilary Mehew is a big smiler and great traveller [it does make her cheeks ache!] She’s travelled extensively, but Asia is her passion – mostly as a backpacker and on business [though not at the same time!]. Years ago she thought she’d go travelling in the region for one year and ended up being away for three and a half. Since then she’s gone back every year for work and holidays. She’s just returned to the UK after backpacking for two years in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Contact her on hilarymehew@hotmail.com

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Research guest houses online and choose a few options

2. Check prices on accommodation sites

3. Find contact details

4. Write to ask for best prices

5. Agree to price and book

6. Ask for a free pick-up

7. Re-confirm 3 days before

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

His Holiness The Dalai Lama in Zanskar

The Dalai Lama just waved at me with his piece of bread!

I excitedly pick up my own piece and wave it back at him, showing that we’ve already received the traditional chapati in our seating section.

He chuckles and gives another little wave, acknowledging that he has understood me.

After completing my ten day trek through Zanskar, I was told that the Dalai Lama was about to arrive in the area for three days of teaching. 

I’d been staying in a monastery built into a cliff for the past three days. It was located in a quaint village a few hours away.  As if that experience wasn’t cool enough, I then watched as His Holiness arrived this morning in a helicopter and was greeted by hundreds of his own people, the Tibetans.

There were villagers of all ages, many of whom had walked great distances to arrive, and the assortment of traditional clothing was impressive to see.

dalai-lama-1

 

Though I was lucky enough to see him speak in my hometown in Oregon several years ago, seeing him speak at this small outdoor venue amongst his own people was definitely more impressive.

Once we watched him arrive, everyone crowded into their sections around the stage. Hundreds of monks sat in lines upfront, and the traditionally dressed villagers crowded behind them.  

dalai-lama-2

The half dozen foreigners in attendance got to sit up front right next to the stage the Dalai Lama was presenting on, simply because we needed an English translation (lucky us!). 

Occasionally, His Holiness would look over to our section, say something in English, and wave. I couldn’t have been luckier to be so close.

dalai-lama-zanskar

As he began his presentation, he first touched on the fact that everyone, not just Buddhists, needs to understand religious tolerance, compassion, and love for all in order for our world to function.

He also talked about the fact that in today’s world, we need to become “21st century Buddhists” (or whatever religion you are) which, he explained, means forgetting the ritualistic acts that no longer hold meaning in order to focus instead on truly understanding and practicing what you have been taught.

He then went on to address his own people, and though I couldn’t understand the Tibetan literature, sitting so close to the Dalai Lama surrounded by chanting villagers in colorful headdresses and robes seemed the perfect combination for happiness.

dalai-lama-4
Though I am no expert on Buddhism, I can’t help but admire the message of peace and love Tibetan Buddhists bring to the world.

After traveling through the Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh areas of India, I can say that without a doubt the Buddhist areas of Ladakh and Zanskar have by far been my favorite.

After hearing the Dalai Lama speak, it is no wonder these people live devout, peaceful, and spiritual lives as it is obviously the way to happiness.

dalai-lama-3

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old female traveler currently cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Highlights from His Holiness the Dalai Lama's recent talk in Zanskar:

1. "Everyone, not just Buddhists, needs to understand religious tolerance, compassion, and love in order for our world to function."

2. "In today's world, we all need to become 21st century Buddhists" - in other words, scarp meaningless rituals and focus instead on deeper spiritual understanding and practice.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Monkey Mountain in Photos

So I didn’t see any monkeys on Monkey Mountain, but I did encounter the largest Buddha statue in Vietnam, a thousand year-old tree with roots that grew up, not down, and views of the entirety of Central Vietnam.

Not to be confused with Marble Mountain, the more well-known tourist destination to the South, Monkey Mountain is located on a peninsula that juts out from the mainland just north of China Beach.

The mountain provides spectacular views, whether you’re gazing at it from the white sand beaches below, or standing atop its highest peak.

I first visited Monkey Mountain in February of 2014, when I walked 7 kilometers from my hotel in Da Nang to the Lady Buddha crest.

Later, in July, I was back in Hoi An and got to spend an entire day traipsing around Monkey Mountain, drinking in the views and marveling at how puny the enormous Buddha statue is compared with the mountain itself.

monkey-mountain-1

Ocean and mountains within walking distance of each other – at China Beach near Monkey Mountain

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It’s possible to walk to Monkey Mountain right from the beach

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Fishing boats line the sand after being dragged in from the morning’s catch

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The beach is beautiful from below, but even better when viewed from Monkey Mountain

monkey-mountain-5

Holy crap! Check out the view of Da Nang and we’re not even at the top yet!

monkey-mountain-6

No one knows how to nap like the Vietnamese.

monkey-mountain-7

Shrines and pagodas surround the grounds beneath the giant Lady Buddha statue

Thar she blows! Enormous and looking very much like the Virgin Mary

Thar she blows! Enormous and looking very much like the Virgin Mary

The waters surrounding Monkey Mountain are filled with islands and islets - you can't tell which way is up because the ocean is on every side!

The waters surrounding Monkey Mountain are filled with islands and islets – you can’t tell which way is up because the ocean is on every side!

Monkey Mountain is a popular place for Vietnamese tourists to come and pray

Monkey Mountain is a popular place for Buddhist tourists to come and pray

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Monkey Mountain is a popular place for school groups and families

When I first visited in February, the clouds over Monkey Mountain were CRAZY

When I first visited in February, the clouds over Monkey Mountain were CRAZY

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There is a huge debate about how old this tree really is - somewhere between 200 and 2,000 years!

There is a huge debate about how old this tree really is – somewhere between 200 and 2,000 years!

While the Lady Buddha is the main event, it's not uncommon to find other statues and relics scattered across the mountain

While the Lady Buddha is the main event, it’s not uncommon to find other statues and relics scattered across the mountain

monkey-mountain (6)

You too can do yoga on top of Monkey Mountain!

This woman derobed and climbed this rock JUST so this dude could take her picture.

This woman derobed and climbed this rock JUST so this dude could take her picture.

The prettiest sky ever over Monkey Mountain

The prettiest sky ever over Monkey Mountain

After your 7k hike (or 14 if you're up for the round trip), you can take a dip in Temple Da Nang's sweet pool to cool off

After your 7k hike (or 14 if you’re up for the round trip), you can take a dip in Temple Da Nang’s sweet pool to cool off

Have you ever been to Monkey Mountain in Da Nang, Vietnam?

How was it? What did you do? 

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

A Stormy Night in Ladakh India

“Dang it, I’m going to get soaked,” think to myself as the heavy thunder clouds up ahead finally break. The small unpaved mountainous road I’m on is headed straight into the storm. Thankfully, if my map is correct, I’ll be hitting a “town,” which will most likely consist of a makeshift stone dhaba (small tea shop) or two, in ten kilometers. I hope to spend the night in one of the small shacks as a sleepless stormy night in my tent doesn’t sound too appealing. Of course, ten kilometers up here where I’m cycling at the speed of a toddler could take me all afternoon: cycling above 4,000m on unpaved roads is no easy feat. Hours pass and I’m finally two kilometers away. So close, yet still so far. And I am indeed completely soaked, and also completely freezing. I stop for a moment to change into dry clothes just before I realize that I have a small river to cross in front of me. Dang it, I just got dry! Instead of pushing my bike through as I usually do, I decide to ride through in order to avoid soaking my new socks and pants. Of course, halfway through I trip, and my bike and I take a plunge into the icy cold glacier melt.

As I slowly pick myself up and begin to proceed on my way, I realize that I’m shaking. I’m absolutely freezing. Night is quickly approaching, and with it, my need for food and shelter is growing stronger. But the sign says only two more kilometers so I push on, there is no way I’m setting up my tent in this wet and cold mess.

I finally see a building ahead and all I can think about is a nice warm meal and my cozy sleeping bag. I’ll finally be able to feel my toes again! But as I approach I realize that something is off, these aren’t small stone dhabas like I’m use to seeing, but rather a large abandoned government building. This is definitely not what I had in mind.

I desperately yell out anyways, and to my surprise, a head pokes out from one of the doors. I ask if he has a room, and he points me into his small section of the building where blankets are laid on the floor. As I realize he is the only one around, in fact, probably the only human within thirty kilometers, I start to panic. I can’t stay here, in an Indian guy’s room, in the middle of nowhere. That goes against everything I have learned about traveling alone as a female. So I leave, I go back outside and stand by my bike in the pouring rain and contemplate what to do next.

The man comes out and tells me in broken English that it’s safe, and that in any case, I have nowhere else to go. The storm will continue all night, he says, you need shelter. So I decide to trust my instincts which are telling me he is just trying to help and follow him back in. He leaves to let me change in privacy, then cooks me a noodle soup with egg while I hunker down in a large pile of thick blankets. As I accept my second steaming hot cup of tea I realize that coming inside was indeed the right decision, though I’m definitely still on alert.

I fall asleep somewhat uneasily, pepper spray in hand under the covers, and am practically scared to death at two a.m. when someone begins viciously knocking on the door. As I cower under the blanket my host jumps up to answer. After speaking with the stranger for a few moments, he announces to me that he is leaving, and tosses me his keys.

Leaving? At two a.m. in the middle of a storm… on a motorcycle? While leaving a stranger with your keys? I quickly remind myself that I’m in India, and in India, anything and everything is possible.

After he leaves I quickly fall asleep again, and awake in the morning to a beautifully sunny day. I cook breakfast, dry my wet clothes on the fence outside, and laugh at the absurdity of a night in the Himalayas.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old girl cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

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Blood, Fur, and Guts: Life in the Peruvian Altiplano

Blood squirts out and onto the squealing guinea pig, who is about to reach the same fate as his brother.

The knife tugs at the skin and fur, eventually severing the neck. Two decapitated guinea pigs staring at me with vacant eyes.

An unknowing sheep that my trekking partner purchased a few days back is about to receive the same treatment. I have definitely never seen my meals so up close and personal before, and I’m not so sure I want to make a habit out of this.

I just finished an amazing ten day trek through the Andes, and somehow I have ended up at the mule owner’s small mud hut in the high altitude Peruvian country side.

My trekking partner and I have set up our tent in their field, and in doing so, we have gained the attention of many curious eyes which have never been laid upon foreigners before.  

The children are more scared than the women, who have gathered around in a circle, but I know eventually they too will approach.

The house itself is amazing, a small mud hut structure with an open fire kitchen inside.

There is a shack beside it full of squealing guinea pigs and squabbling chickens, and then another open air hut which I have lovingly dubbed “the killing room.”

The man we arrived with is now tying up a very stubborn sheep, and with the help of his eldest son, is about to lift the protesting animal to be hung, then killed.

Though it’s gruesome, I have to remind myself that no matter how meat back home is packaged, it too was once a real live animal like this one.

The men chop the meat, hacking away the thick fur coat which will be used for clothing or a blanket later on. The women then take the pieces and wrap them in leaves before burying them underground.

For the past few hours the village has been preparing for this special type of cuisine by gathering the coals from a very hot fire into a pile. The women then place the leaf-cloven meat underground, surrounded by the burning coals, to cook overnight.

Throughout the evening I alternate between playing soccer with a few of the young boys in the village, and trying to speak with some of the women who live at the house.

Though I speak Spanish, this village is so remote that the few inhabitants only speak Quechua. As the sun sets everyone retires for the night, there is no electricity in the area so late nights are fruitless.

I wake at sunrise to the voices and laughter surrounding my tent, and quickly realize that the whole village has been invited to the feast.

The meat, which has been slowly cooking all night, is now in a large basket along with an assortment of different types of potatoes. The basket is passed around and everyone digs in, eagerly eating the meat straight from the leaves. The meat is tender and juicy, and by far the best breakfast I have ever had.

As I look around I realize what a unique situation I have found myself in, a special moment I will remember forever. 

I am surrounded by curious women and hardworking men in the middle of the Andes, in a small village that couldn’t be further removed from the world I come from.

I have been invited to share a feast with them, a feast prepared in a way I have never seen before. But more importantly, I have been invited to take part – if only for a few days – in a way of life completely different from my own. 

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old girl cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

10 Best Travel Books You’ve Never Read

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that most of my favorite books just so happen to be some of the best travel books in the world.

I was in love with travel before I traveled. I was a nomad in the womb, inspired to roam before I could walk.

In creating this list and thinking of the best travel books I’ve ever read, I found that these stories are less about the destinations visited by the characters and writers, and more about the inner journeys undertaken by those doing the globe trotting.

With that in mind, here are the 10 best travel books to get you inspired, keep you moving (and moved!), and show you how travel really can change your life.

10. THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coehlo

The Alchemist is the story of Santiago, a poor shepherd boy on a quest to find his Personal Legend. In the book he journeys throughout Spain, to Morocco, and to Egypt, but it is in reaching his final destination that he finally finds himself (plus there’s a super romantic love story woven into this little parable – I’ve probably read this book a dozen times and never tire of it!)

9. THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert

I am a huge, huge, HUGE fan of Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) – to the point where I pre-ordered this novel months before it came out because I was so excited to devour it.

Needless to say, my favorite writer did not disappoint! The novel tells the life story of Alma, a brilliant 19th-century scientist who lives on a Pennsylvania estate and spends her life studying mosses.

Sounds kind of boring, right? That’s where Gilbert’s brilliance comes in – she sends Alma on a round-the-world journey to Tahiti, where she meets a man who may very well be the sexiest person in literature (his name is Tomorrow Morning. And he’s a 6-foot tall Tahitian Adonis. And sometimes I re-read the book just so I can be close to him.)

8. WHAT I WAS DOING WHILE YOU WERE BREEDING by Kristin Newman

I was first drawn to this travel memoir by the hilarious title, but what made me decide to buy it was the fact that Kristin Newman is a TV writer.

Having spent 5+ years working in entertainment in Los Angeles, I’ve seen firsthand how cutthroat and challenging TV writing can be, especially sitcom writing. You have to think on the fly and be brilliant while surrounded by 12+ executives and fellow writers, who are all throwing out ideas a mile a minute.

Given the time and solitude to craft her own travel tales, Newman crushes it. Her own book summary is better than any I could write, so here it is:

“Kristin introduces readers to the Israeli bartenders, Finnish poker players, sexy Bedouins, and Argentinean priests who helped her transform into “Kristin-Adjacent” on the road–a slower, softer, and, yes, sluttier version of herself at home. Equal parts laugh-out-loud storytelling, candid reflection, and wanderlust-inspiring travel tales, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is a compelling debut that will have readers rushing to renew their passports.”

7.  ALEPH by Paulo Coehlo

We’re sticking with the Hollywood theme but heading to Cannes, France, for the annual international film festival.

Coehlo stays in one place in Aleph, but leads you deep into the belly of the beast in Cannes, where murder, greed and deception can’t be escaped, no matter where you turn.

This book is dark, juicy, and disturbing, with Coehlo’s usual spiritual reverence nowhere to be found.

6. THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES by Ernesto Che Guevara

Confession: I definitely watched the movie (starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal….siiiiiigh) before I read the book.

But the film inspired me to go to the source, and I’m so glad I did!

While reading Che’s memoirs of his journeys throughout South America, you can actually see the evolution of spirit on each page. His excitement and youth deepen the more he travels, the more people he meets, the more injustices he sees.

This book is the perfect example of how travel forces you outside yourself, how it strips you of selfishness and helps you see the interconnectivity of all things.

5. ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac

On the Road is a beatnik classic that’s raw and real, surprisingly funny, and totally freeing. Kerouac’s prose makes me want to be a complete vagrant and train-hop my way around the world.

He had no money, absolutely nothing, and still managed to not only travel all over the U.S., to Denver and California and New York, but managed to write a book while he was doing it.

On the Road shows the creative power of travel to inspire, even when you’re on a budget so low it’s inside out.

4. THE CELESTINE PROPHECY by James Redfield

Reading this book was my very first spiritual awakening (of course it’s about a journey into the rain forests of Peru!)

Traveling to Peru through this book opened my mind to incredible spiritual ideas I had never before considered – ideas about energy, about things unseen, and about my growth as a human being and a spirit on a quest for enlightenment.

This book is pure magic for the soul-seeking traveler.

3. 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY by Rebekah Voss

I’m including my own book here as a gentle reminder to READ it after you download it from this site! (And make sure you’ve opted in to our email list so you can get your free copy!)

It’s packed with ways to see the world for cheap, to make money traveling, and to stay abroad for free.

Here’s what Daisy from Amazon had to say about it (and Daisy should know – she’s one of the Top 10 reviewers on Amazon!):

“This book is the BEST and MOST PLANNED OUT book that I have ever read regarding HOW TO TRAVEL WITH NO EXCUSES!

Rebekah has a passion for traveling and she found ways to make that happen for herself. In this book, she shares with the reader how she did this herself and in laid out list of preparations BEFORE attempting to travel.

Things like: Sell the house, sub leasing the apartment, selling car, selling furniture and SO MUCH MORE! She even explains that you can sell a tablet, phone or a laptop and the money you will receive will pay for food in India for ONE MONTH! Then she even goes on to suggest more tips on how to save money to prepare for this trip.”

Enter your email address below to get your free PDF copy, or go to Amazon if you prefer to read on your Kindle or get a hard copy version.

2. LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE by Laura Esquivel

Travel to 17th century Mexico and bring your appetite – this book is a dramatic, erotic love story told through actual recipes passed down from the author’s great grandmother.

War, love triangles, forbidden sex and familial chaos is set against the backdrop of rural Mexico in the late 1700s. This is another book I’ve read about 20 times because the love triangle between Tita, Rosaura and Pedro is so delicious!!!

1. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I avoided reading this book for years because the marketing made me think it was super fluffy chick lit.

Imagine my surprise when one of my smartest, sophisticated, well-read friends insisted I pick it up.

I have yet to put it down, and it’s currently serving as a source of inspiration for my forthcoming travel memoir and for my life in general.

After a miserable, soul-crushing divorce, Gilbert plans a year-long RTW journey to Italy, India and Indonesia. Her hilarious writing makes her poignant spiritual realizations all the more profound when they pop up unexpectedly throughout the book.

If you only read one book from this list, make it Eat, Pray, Love.

What are the best travel books on your bookshelf (or in your Kindle?)

What travel book has completely changed your life? 

Ye Olde Disclaimer: If you buy one of these books on Amazon after clicking a link from this site, I’ll get a small commission. (Please and thank you, I need to pay for my pho!)

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Travel Yoga in a Rice Paddy in Vietnam

Travel yoga can be a challenge, especially in remote locations or areas that simply don’t offer yoga classes.

Luckily I’m spending the summer in Hoi An, a town that has managed to create a perfect balance between touristy offerings (waxing! Western-style lattes! Fast WiFi!) and authentic Vietnamese culture (coffee! plastic chairs! swimming in your pajamas!).

That means that yoga studios don’t dot every corner like in over-touristed Luang Prabang, but the yoga classes that are offered here in Hoi An are dynamite.

Stephanie of Hoi An Yoga in Hoi An, Vietnam invited me to do “rice paddy yoga” just outside the city.

The surroundings were gorgeous – you really are in the middle of rice fields, and on the way there I biked past many people working in the paddies. They were wearing traditional hats, raking the land with rusty tools, the whole nine yards.

I had never done yoga outside before, and being able to breathe fresh air while watching the sun set over the river was a truly spiritual experience.

When you’re in Hoi An you can book with Stephanie by visiting http://HoiAnYoga.com.

Click play now to check out my yoga adventure:

Have you ever done yoga in a strange location before?

How do you keep up with your yoga practice while traveling? 

Don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE to our email list to follow my solo female travel adventures and get your FREE travel guide, 175 Ways to Travel Today.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Travel yoga is a great way to stay fit on the road - you can do it inside during bad weather and outside during great weather!

2. Travel yoga in Asia is a lot cheaper than yoga back home - $5-$7 per class instead of $10-$15 per class or more.

3. In Hoi An, you can do yoga on the beach and yoga in a rice paddy with Stephanie from Hoi An Yoga.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

No Privacy Nepal

The man’s hand is cool on my forehead. The room is dark and his traditional flat-topped hat is silhouetted against the light leaking in from the flimsy, hung tapestry that serves as a door.

Like everyone else in the village, he has waltzed right into my sick room without knocking – not that there is even a door to knock upon.

After the incident at the river, The Mother, and possibly even Deepak, is finally convinced that I am ill and must rest.

And eat. Lots and lots of food.

In addition to plastic bottles filled with warm, stagnant water, women and children parade into the bedroom with dish after dish of what I assume they think will cure me.

I try to explain to Deepak that I cannot eat, that eating is what got me into this mess in the first place.

He’s not getting it.

“You just try” he says.

And I do, knowing full well the little bit of rice and soup I manage to ingest is coming right back up.

I’ve been placed in the bedroom of Mr. and Mrs. DeKash, and if I wasn’t about to hurl, might feel a bit strange lying on the same rock-hard slab that serves as their marriage bed. This is where he makes love. With no doors, with people coming in and out whenever they please, with no secrets, no privacy anywhere.

Do they try to be quiet? Are they as loud as they please and everyone hears them and it’s fine because they’re married?

The tall man with the flattop hat removes his hand from my forehead and abruptly leaves the room, shouting something important-sounding to someone outside.

I wonder for a moment if he’s the village medicine man, or the mayor. His towering height must’ve been rewarded with some position of power.

Two humble shelves have been attached to the stone wall above my sick bed. One holds a stick of deodorant, a bottle of lotion, a pink plastic comb, and a tiny hand mirror.

The second shelf holds a carefully-coiled cell phone charger and a photograph of The Mother and Deepak’s father on their wedding day. They are sitting two feet apart from each other, unsmiling, having been positioned in front of an enormous Mount Everest backdrop. I’m certain when looking at the picture that it’s the only one she’s ever had taken of herself, the only one she’s ever kept.

Other photographs and posters dot the walls – Army Brother in his uniform, which makes him look exactly like Bullwinkle; a decorative plate that must’ve been someone’s wedding gift; a poster of a famous Bollywood actress baring her midriff.

The young boy who has remained at my bedside since the Mayor left stares at me expectantly, watching to see if I’m going to die, which he seems to think would be a pretty cool thing to see.

I can’t entertain him, and allow my eyes to close, knowing full well that he’s still standing six inches from me, staring at me intently.

Feeling like shit is a really quick, easy way to let all of your cultural conditioning about privacy and boundaries go out the window.

In and out, in and out they come. There’s a foreigner in the village! An American! A woman! She threw up in Parvarti’s river! And the Mayor says she’s going to die!

I’m the most exciting thing that’s happened since Shiva’s buffalo from two farms over was born with an extra leg. 

When the latest horde of visitors gets bored and decides to go torment the goats (who, by the way, have been in and out of my sick room as well), there is a lone figure leaning against the doorless doorway.

I squint in the din, looking for Deepak’s easy smile, but the lips are upturned in a smirk.

“You are sick” says DeKash, Deepak’s younger, unruly, inconveniently attractive brother.

We are alone in the room and through the stench of vomit and sweat and misery, my body still responds to him, inviting him closer.

“This is my room” says Dekash.

I know. More like this is your bed. The bed where you get naked with your wife after The Mother is finally asleep, being careful not to wake the snoozing buffalo.

His English is light years better than Deepak’s, perhaps that’s why Deepak is nowhere to be found. I’ve been pawned off on the women for health, on DeKash for conversation.

His presence makes something spin inside me, and the last thing my stomach needs is more spinning.  Another wave of nausea overtakes me, and I am sitting up frantically, pushing past DeKash, running for the “toilet.”

Everyone can hear me retching, it is everywhere, I am naked in front of these strangers, these judging eyes. The cement slab beneath the water pump is filled with my mess, and I can’t help but wonder how on earth people shit here.

Cold sweat breaks out on my forehead, I’m squatting in the filth, my nose and face a mess, shaking, tears leaking from my eyes.

Suddenly I feel two dry, warm hands pressed against my forehead, not letting go. They hold me fast, steadying me, calming the shakes. Hands well practiced at soothing, at making everything OK.

I place my hand over the mystery hands in gratitude, saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.

I cannot look at her but I know they are the hands of The Mother.

Without standing up, I reach my hand up, trying to touch the handle of the water pump with my fingers.

“Please” I beg, gesturing to the vomit, the mess I’ve made of their super weird toilet. “Please.”

She understands that I want it gone, I need it cleaned, I am ashamed.

I sit squatting on wet cement, the buffalo yawning at my plight, while The Mother pumps and pumps the water until all the evidence has been washed through the narrow openings in the grid covering the drain.

At rock bottom, squatting in one’s own filth, the perks of communal living begin to become apparent.

I am one of the flock, I need to be looked after. I must accept the help that’s offered me, for my own good and for the good of everyone here.

Each individual in the community is one limb of a connected body that survives or perishes based on how everyone works together.

They haven’t been barging into my sickroom because they’re curious. They’re naturally interested in my fate because it impacts them directly – in communal Nepal, all illnesses, recoveries, victories and defeats are suffered by all and celebrated by all.

It’s taken the steadying strength of The Mother’s warm hands to make me begin to see the enormous benefit, the enormous power, of living life this way.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

 

 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

When one takes it upon oneself to get food poisoning in a remote village in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Nepal, one must be prepared to live like the Nepalese do in such a village.

That means whatever is coming up (and/or out) of your body is everybody's business, and that the town mayor may very well enter your sick room, place his hand on your forehead, and utter the curse of the dead to the delight of a dozen gawking children.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Traveling Alone Vs. Traveling With a Partner

Traveling alone is one of the most rewarding experiences in the world, an experience I believe every traveler should take advantage of at some point during his or her life.

Traveling alone enables you the freedom to do what you want, when you want, while showing you more about yourself than you ever thought possible.

As a solo traveler you are normally more social as well, going out of your way to meet locals and travelers alike because you don’t constantly have someone by your side. You end up creating long lasting friendships that defy distance and time.

But what happens when you meet your partner and you begin to travel as two instead of one?

Travel as a couple is supposed to be perfect, right? Visiting romantic, exotic places together, sharing new dishes at sunset, and visiting the world’s tallest peaks or most serene lakes hand in hand.

It’s impossible not to romanticize. After traveling alone for nearly two years, I have recently begun traveling with my partner, and though I wouldn’t exchange the experience for the world, I have realized that each type of travel – traveling as a couple and traveling alone – has its perks and disadvantages.

Our trip together started out rough.

Within a week of my partner joining me in Nepal he fell ill with everything from giardia to typhoid fever. His illness prevented us from cycling (a bummer when you have set out to cycle around the world) and completing a trek I had been waiting six months to do.

I was distraught. How was it that life was no longer going my way, that I was suddenly unable to do the things I wanted to do because of someone else?

But that’s the thing with traveling as two –  you learn to compromise. You learn to put the other person first even when it’s the last thing you truly want to do, and you learn to work around problems together rather than separately, just like you would need to in a successful relationship back home.

Just because we are on the road doesn’t mean that all of our troubles have disappeared, it just means we are faced with different ones than we would be back home.

Now that we have settled into more of a routine, a give and take that I have realized is extremely important while traveling with someone else, I love traveling with my guy.

For the first time, I have someone to share my adventures and stories with, someone who understands how hard the last pass was to cycle over or how great our last camping spot in the mountains was.

Traveling with someone is also a great way to strengthen and improve your relationship as it enables you both to work together through stressful or unusual situations.

Traveling with somebody shows you who that person truly is because you’re with them constantly, and enables them to see you clearly as well. It’s a learning experience, once that requires time and patience to perfect, but one that also provides both of you with an enormous reward, the beauty of traveling as two.

So which is right for you? If you are alone, take advantage of this time to explore the world for yourself in your own way, unhindered by anything but your own imagination.

And if you have already found that special person you want to travel with, then go for it instead, because travel as two is an adventure all its own.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

12-City Southeast Asia Travel Itinerary

Planning Southeast Asia travel can be really daunting.

There are a million places to see and things to do, and if your time and budget are limited it can be tough to pick and choose where to go and when.

That’s why I’ve laid out this year’s Southeast Asia circle tour in detail.  If you’re feeling overwhelmed while planning your trip, you can simply follow in my footsteps!

Below I’ve listed

  • Which city/country I visited
  • What hotel/hostel/guest house I stayed at
  • The best thing I did/saw in that city
  • How much time I spent there
  • What to watch out for
  • How I traveled between each city (bus/train/plane)

Let’s go!

1. Vientiane, Laos

southeast-asia-travel-vientiane

Where I stayed: The Funky Monkey Hostel – private room for $12/night. This place definitely had a hostel vibe, but the private rooms are on a different floor from the dorms so they’re pretty quiet.

The best thing I did: Visited Buddha Park

How long I stayed: 6 days – if you’re not working as you travel, you can easily see all there is to see in Vientiane in 1 or 2 days.

Watch out for: The Lonely Planet Guide to Laos, which says you can take a bus to Buddha Park. In fact, you can only take a bus to the Friendship Bridge. From there you have to take a 50,000 kip tuk tuk to Buddha Park.

Also, don’t buy electronics (ear buds, cell phone chargers) at the “Apple Store” in the Talat Sao mall. They’re shit quality and will break as soon as you buy them.

How I got out: 12+ hour bus ride to Luang Prabang.

2. Luang Prabang, Laos

southeast-asia-travel-luang-prabang

Where I stayed: Central Backpackers Hostel – very hostely, private rooms from $12+/night, thin walls, noisy, friendly staff, slow WiFi, free breakfast but it’s pretty gross (and I’ve had a LOT of free hotel breakfasts on my journey).

The best thing I did: It’s a toss up between a trek with Tiger Trail and teaching English to the monks at Big Brother Mouse.

How long I stayed: 2 weeks.

Watch out for: Flies at food stalls in the day market, scammy tuk tuk drivers, women on the street who ask you to “come talk to my daughter, she just happens to be leaving for college in the town you happen to be from, won’t you come have dinner at our house?” (SCAM! RUN!)

How I got out: Mini-bus to Nong Khiaw (3-4+ hours)

3. Nong Khiaw, Laos (and Muang Ngoi Neua)

southeast-asia-travel-nong-khiaw

Where I stayed: The Sunrise Bungalows ($10/night for a private riverside bungalow. Beautiful, bare bones but your own bathroom and balcony. Pray your neighbors are quiet because you’re basically sleeping outside and can hear everything).

The best thing I did: Hiked to “the Lookout Point” – it’s a tough hike up the main mountain in town and may take you a good 90 minutes to reach the summit, but the stunning views are more than worth it.

How long I stayed: 6 days. There’s not much to do here but relax. I could’ve stayed longer.

Watch out for: Noise. The set up couldn’t be more peaceful (picture yourself lounging in a hammock on a balcony that overlooks a sweeping river gorge below), but there is constant thumping music coming from the boat dock and noisy boats passing by all day.

How I got out: Mini-bus back to Luang Prabang followed by a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam.

southeast-asia-travel-muang-ngoi-neua

A note about Muang Ngoi Neua:  This is a tiny river village about an hour’s boat ride north of Nong Khiaw. I stayed here for one night at a bungalow owned by a Swiss guy named Gabriel. (He’ll be the only white guy waiting at the boat landing and he’ll walk you to the bungalow himself). It’s definitely worth a visit but keep in mind that it’s off the grid completely – Lonely Planet says there is WiFi but THERE IS NOT. There is barely cell reception. 

4. Hanoi, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-hanoi

Where I stayed: Lakeside Hostel and Hanoi Hostel on several different occasions. Both were around $12/night for a private room. Lakeside has smelly rooms without windows and unfriendly staff. Hanoi Hostel has friendlier staff, good free breakfast, and large (if a bit dusty) private rooms.

The best thing I did: Walked around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake area. There is so much to see in Hanoi simply walking around – the colors, the people, the sites and smells are simply brilliant. Seeing Tet fireworks over the lake on Vietnamese New Year’s Eve was stunning too.

How long I stayed: 5 days, then two weeks, then on and off again for a day or two here and there. Hanoi is a travel hub so if you’re journeying to Cat Ba, Sa Pa or southern cities you’ll probably have to stay here and depart from here.

Watch out for: Scammy taxi drivers, scammy street vendors. Do your research on what things should cost before you go, and don’t be afraid to bargain and/or walk away if the price is too high.

How I got out: Bus/boat/bus combo to Cat Ba Island.

5. Cat Ba, Vietnam

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Where I stayed: Ali Baba’s Hotel and Restaurant

The best thing I did: Boat tour of Ha Long Bay and the floating villages surrounding Cat Ba

How long I stayed: 6 days initially, then I went back later for 6 weeks

Watch out for: Slow WiFi, no computer shops, nowhere to get a bikini wax.

How I got out: Bus/boat/bus back to Hanoi, followed by a 16-hour bus ride to Da Nang.

6. Da Nang, Vietnam

southeast-asia-travel-danang

Where I stayed: Sea Wonder Hotel near the beach – $14/night, semi-private balcony, walking distance to the beach. Friendly staff, the food in the downstairs restaurant is decent but overpriced.

The best thing I did: Hiked to the big Buddha statue at the base of Monkey Mountain – the views of Da Nang from here are simply stunning. The Cham Museum in town is also worth a visit. There are also beautiful bridges lining the river that leads to the ocean – at night they are lit up in stunning electric.

How long I stayed: 8 days. You may not stay as long if you want something more touristy. Da Nang has beautiful beaches, great coffee culture, and amazing seafood, but it is very much a ‘local’s town’ – not many tourists, simply a shining, modern city where regular Vietnamese people live and work. I loved it here.

Watch out for: No menus in English depending on where you go, less English spoken here than in Hanoi or HCMC. Also, if you stay by the beach you should rent a motorbike b/c it gets pricey taking a taxi to and from the ‘downtown’ part of the city (where you’ll want to go for dinner, museums, etc).

How I got out: Motorbiked down to Hoi An, returned by motorbike then flew to HCMC.

7. Hoi An, Vietnam

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Where I stayed: Jolie Homestay – $16/night for a huge private room in a house with a very kind Vietnamese family.

The best thing I did: Hard to choose – I loved taking the Hoi An Photography Tour almost as much as I loved swimming with the locals at An Bang Beach.

How long I stayed: 4 days initially. I’m actually back in Hoi An for the summer because I loved it so much (at the time of writing I’ve now been here for 5 weeks).

Watch out for: Scammy food vendors (a baguette should NOT cost 15,000 dong, it should be 10,000 or less!) My friend got pick pocketed here by way of a very common ‘coin scam’. If someone wants to show you their coins or see your coins, run.

How I got out: Motorbike back up to Da Nang then flew to HCMC.

8. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Where I stayed: The Spring House Hotel in District 1. $17+/night. Very much a hotel. Nice enough room, no free breakfast, good location across from the park and a block away from some seriously astounding nightlife.

The best thing I did: Visited the War Remnants Museum. I can’t begin to express how moved and shaken I was by this experience.

How long I stayed: 5 days. You could easily go higher or lower, the city is positively massive and I didn’t begin to explore all it has to offer.

Watch out for: Motorbike pick pockets. Hang on to your stuff and make sure to utilize zippers.

How I got out: Bus to Sa Dec booked through the hotel.

9. Sa Dec, Vietnam

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Where I stayed: Thao Ngan Hotel. $11/night. Pure hotel, windows that looked out onto a brick wall. Close to the market and the bus station.

The best thing I did: Enjoyed the best pho I had in Vietnam. The restaurant is called Pho Hien. From the hotel, walk across the bridge back toward the bus station and it will be on your left, set back away from the street.

How long I stayed: 4 days. The only thing “to do” here is to see the The Lover house – a local one-story abode made famous because it used to be owned by the nameless lover featured in Marguerite Duras’ novel.

Watch out for: Scammy cab drivers and scammy transpo in general. The taxi driver that took me from the bus station to the hotel tried to charge me about 10x what it should have cost. The hotel also massively overcharged for a bus ticket out of town.

How I got out: Local bus to Chau Doc.

10. Chau Doc, Vietnam

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Where I stayed: Trung Nguyen Hotel across from the main market in town. $15/night. Balcony. Free breakfast and transpo to the boat to Cambodia (which is why you stay in Chau Doc – to catch the fast boat to Phnom Penh).  

The best thing I did: Walked along the riverfront. It’s amazing to watch people living their lives on the water – eating dinner on their tiny wooden boats, paddling across the wide waters standing upright, living their lives on floating structures.

How long I stayed: 1 night

Watch out for: Not much English spoken here – if you need help ask at your hotel before leaving the building. Tuk tuk drivers will ask for tips for taking you 100 yards.

How I got out: The fast boat to Cambodia arranged through my hotel.

11. Phnom Penh, Cambodia

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Where I stayed: The Mad Monkey Hostel. Friendly staff. Privates from $13/night. Overpriced Western food in the downstairs restaurant. The first floor is a bar and the music pumps all day and night and can be heard in the upstairs rooms.

I was so irritated with this I changed to the Salita Hotel in the central part of the city. Three times the price but much, much nicer (and quieter!).

The best thing I did: Feasted in the night market near the river. There are a lot of different markets to see in Phnom Penh and lots to do. By the time I got here I was beat and could only manage to gorge myself on street food.

How long I stayed: 6 days.

Watch out for: Oppressive heat, pollution/car exhaust, pick pockets, traffic, diarrhea, and – say it with me now – scammy tuk tuk drivers.

How I got out: Mini-bus to Siem Reap.

12. Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Where I stayed: Sam So Guest House. Best free breakfast of them all, incredibly friendly staff, $12/night for a private ($17/night if you want air-con).

The best thing I did: Angkor Wat was incredible, but I really loved taking a private motorbike tour with my friend Ratha who showed me the surrounding villages and countryside outside the city. (If you’re in Siem Reap and want to see “the real Cambodia,” email me and I’ll put you in touch with Ratha).

How long I stayed: 3 weeks. You can do Angkor Wat in a day, or in 3 days, or in a week. The area is enormous and the ruins seem to never end. But Siem Reap is a lovely river town, a great place to live and work. I found it to be a fantastic resting place to relax at the end of 3 months of hectic Southeast Asia travel.

Watch out for: Theft. I never had anything stolen but have heard countless stories of people getting their phones jacked. Also, watch out for “the milk scam” – if a kid comes up to you begging for you to buy her milk (for “her baby” or “her sister”), don’t do it.

She has a deal with whatever store she takes you to where she can sell the milk back to the store for cash. Cash that she then gives to her “keeper” (like a pimp for begging kids) so the child you think you’re helping does not benefit in any way.

How I got out: Flew to Hanoi because one month was not enough time in Vietnam!

Where will you go on your Southeast Asia travel itinerary? 

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Makalu: Trekking the Himalayas

The last four hours trekking the Himalayas haven’t been that bad. In fact, even though I have gained nearly 1,000 meters of altitude, it’s been pretty fun! That is, until 10 minutes ago….

Unfortunately, the last ten minutes have proven that the rest of the day is about to get a whole lot slower.

For the first time in over a decade there is still snow on the route, snow that has normally melted by the end of February but will clearly be here at least a few more weeks.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love snow. I absolutely love the mountains, and usually when I see snow, I feel right at home being from a cold snowy place myself.

But I guess it’s a little different when that snow is greatly hindering your progress up a never ending vertical slope.

After a few more hours of panting and slipping I arrive, completely soaked, to a small house in the middle of nowhere.

This guest house, called a tea house in the trekking regions of Nepal, is run by a Tibetan Nepali woman, and is open throughout the season in order to provide climbers a dry place to sleep and eat on their approach to Makalu, the fifth tallest mountain in the world.

 

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Though there are other trekkers who simply wish to visit the base camp, this area is mostly composed of true mountaineers, many of whom have already climbed some of the world’s most renowned peaks such as K2 and Everest.

I order a “dalbaht,” the typical rice and lentils found everywhere in Nepal, and though it’s much more expensive than usual, I understand why.

As we are now a four day’s walk from civilization, the food has to be carried up here everyday in order for us trekkers and climbers to eat.

In fact, on my way through the snow I met three teenage boys racing down the hill (in flip flops no less!). They were making their way down the mountain to a lower supply village in order to fill up the empty baskets on their heads, and then begin the long trudge back up the steep snowy slopes.

It is wet and cold as I set up the tent, and throughout the next two nights trekking the Himalayas I realize that the weather in this particular area is absolutely miserable.

The clouds are constant and the cold is bone-chilling because everything is so wet. I do get a fifteen minute break at sunrise though, and realize that the giant Himalayas are indeed surrounding us, tantalizing us by staying so hidden most of the time. 

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After talking with the lady who runs this tea house I realize that her family owns the guest houses farther along this trek as well.

While she is in charge of this one, her husband caters to the one on the other side of the gigantic pass in front of us. And beyond that, her husband’s brother is stationed at the next one.

Their children are all in private boarding schools lower down, and one is even going to school in Kathmandu. There is good money in running a tea house such as this, but it is also a lot of work.

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The woman is up at dawn preparing tea and food for the climbers and trekkers who want to get an early start to the day, and then spends the rest of the morning cleaning up in order to prepare for the next group who may or may not be trekking the Himalayas that day. 

It is cold, and in this case, very snowy, and to run this guest house she is forced to live away from her family for months at a time.

I’m thankful she is here though. Even though I am carrying a fair amount of food and am mostly self-sufficient due to the tent, there is no way I could carry enough to last me along this twenty-day trek without being able to buy meals at the mountain tea houses such as this one.

The Makalu base camp trek is a great alternative for trekkers who want something less crowded and popular than the overrun treks of Annapurna and Everest.

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Situated in the East, it’s inaccessibility is what keeps most people away as it requires a twenty-five hour bus ride (or half an hour flight) from Kathmandu to reach the last town in the area where the trek begins.

The long travel overland is more than worth it for the beauty this twenty-day trek grants you, and the peacefulness of being nearly alone among the 8,000-meter giants.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Trekking the Himalayas doesn't have to mean over-touristed circuits like Annapurna and Everest.

Head east of Kathmandu to Makalu for isolation and amazing views!

It takes 25 hours by bus to reach the trail head from Kathmandu, so be prepared to be surrounded by hardcore adventure travelers and true mountaineers.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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