Category Archives: Southeast Asia

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!

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?

 

 

Superman Sprains His Wrist

A few weeks ago, after a particularly interesting night in Pai Thailand, I received the following email.

Dear Michael,

This is ____ the girl you helped a lot last night in Pai. my friend ____ now is transferring to Chiangmai lam hospital to have an operation. he got two parts of bone break of his left leg. i haven’t deal with the motorcycle problem yet by now. how is your wrist now ? i’m really sorry that you got hurt your wrist. sorry…

You appeared like a super man to me last night! you followed my friend to the hospital after the accident, you found me, you helped me to push my motorcycle for 3 km, you took me to the hospital and also took me back to the hotel.you did so much! like i said you are the best american i ever known. you are so helpful and nice! thanks for everything you did for me.

thank you Michael !

_____ from China

Now, I don’t think I’m a hero for the events described above. I mean, I’m far from being Martin Luther King Jr. (or even, say, Kirk Cameron).

All I am is a guy who was riding his scooter in the rain, after midnight, on a dark stretch of road leading out of a small town in northern Thailand, against all common sense and to the horror of my mother is she ever found out (which she now will, I suppose).

I saw an opportunity to help an injured stranger, which then turned into an opportunity to help a different stranger in need, and I took it. I don’t believe in karma, I was not looking for a reward.

So why then, you might ask, did I spend four hours after the stroke of the witching hour helping people I didn’t know? I’d like to think of it as common decency; just showing concern for my fellow man.

And frankly, it was exciting.

The setting? Pai, Thailand: a small town north of Chiang Mai filled with friendly locals, laid back expats , and tourists; a town embraced by natural beauty in every direction.

With its rice fields, rolling green hills, tranquil muddy rivers, and big open sky sporting puffy white clouds, Pai is a little bit like what Eden might have been, had it existed.

The people are generally very friendly, quick to smile, quick to help. In fact, by the time I came across the injured stranger (let’s call him German Bob for funsies), he was already being carried into the back of a white pick up truck owned by two Thai men and a local woman who had pulled over to help him.

I gave his crashed motorbike a cursory once over, asked the German if he wanted me to go to the hospital with him (silly question apparently), and followed the truck there on my scooter.

At the hospital, once it became obvious that German Bob was in no great mortal danger, we got to talking a little bit (him through gritted teeth, rolling eyeballs, and in between moans, that is).

pai-thailand-just-a-pack-2

Turns out the crashed bike was not his – he’d borrowed it from a girl he met and was speeding into town to buy a lighter, hoping to return to her hotel as quickly as possible.

He crashed his motorbike on the way to buy a fucking lighter! Smoking really IS bad for your health, ya’ll.

The girls’ hotel was located some ways out of town, and Bob didn’t recall its name. It had two lemons on its sign, however, that much he knew for certain. Bob produced a key to room 202 and told me that the girl was eagerly awaiting his return.

A bit of detective work at 1am sounded like fun, so I grabbed the key and promised I’d find the mystery girl and bring her to German Bob’s bedside.

I drove back to the scene of the accident to make sure Bob’s crunched motorbike was still there.

Crunched motorbike, check.

I then proceeded further down the road into the mysterious night, the single beam of my scooter’s headlamp keeping the darkness at bay as I searched in for two lemons in vain.

Bob’s memory was relatively sound, however, and I eventually came across a fruit-filled hotel sign some 5 clicks out of town. They weren’t lemons at all (passion fruit actually), but we’ll give poor Bob the benefit of the doubt.

Pulling into the parking lot on my hardy little scooter, I mentally prepared myself to knock on a stranger’s door to deliver some bad news.

I took a few deeps breaths outside of room 202, my heart beating a little too quickly, and knocked on the door.

A few moments later it flew open and a  short Asian girl (let’s call her Sue) stood before me in an equally short night gown.

I was obviously not who Sue was expecting as evidenced by the look on her face, which transitioned from puzzlement to alarm and back again within three heartbeats. We stood there looking at one another for a few seconds before I remembered I had to speak.

“I’m sorry to alarm you but your friend was in an accident. He is in the hospital now. Your bike is on the side of the road a few kilometers from here “, I blurted, all while trying to make what I hoped to be cross-cultural calming motions with my hands.

It took her some time to accept the news, but I guess my stammering sincerity made the harsh truth easier to stomach.  We stopped by the hotel owner’s bungalow so she could (much to her confusion) take my photograph (y’know, just in case German Bob didn’t exist and I was actually a deranged lunatic who’d come to kidnap Sue and drag her back to my den of unspeakable horrors).

Photos snapped, our next task was to check up on German Bob’s – er, Sue’s – crashed motorbike.

The bike appeared to be in better shape than Bob was, just some minor scratches on the body. But the keys were missing from the ignition, and there was a shirtless (and mostly toothless) old Thai man standing nearby in the dark, looking at the bike (and us) with some obvious consternation.

We decided that leaving Sue’s bike there was probably not a great idea, so I pushed the fucking thing three kilometers back to her hotel.

pai-thailand-just-a-pack

That sweaty task completed, we set off on my scooter to the hospital. German Bob was medicated and sleeping when we got there, but woke up long enough to chat Sue up through his drugged-out haze.

They’d placed Bob in a room with 5 elderly female patients who were not super happy about our late night visit, so we kept it short. Sue told Bob she’d visit him in the morning, asked him if he had the key to the scooter (he did not), and off we went.

While dropping Sue off at her hotel at 3:30 in the morning, I nearly caused the second motorbike accident of the evening when I dropped the damned scooter and wrenched my wrist trying to keep it from falling. Apparently scooters do no like standing sideways on steep hills, kick stand or no kickstand.

Sue offered to nurse my new injury but I begged off, not wanting my travel partner to freak out due to my long, unexplained absence in the middle of the night.

Saying goodbye to ol’ Sue,  I braced myself against fresh rain as I drove back to my hotel. Stumbling into my room half a hour later I fell into bed, exhausted but content.

I never saw or heard from German Bob again after that night. Sue, on the other hand, sent me about 18 emails in gratitude, bought my travel partner and I dinner and drinks one night, and was pretty much consumed with expressing her thanks for a few days. We still keep in touch, and she still calls me “her superman” in her emails.

I never told Sue, but I think Superman is a dick. I much prefer Batman, but if she keeps it up I just might start wearing really tight spandex pants as my ego swells to unchecked heights.

Michael-Miszczk-pai-thailand

Michael Miszczak is a nomadic Brooklynite and the co-creator of www.justapack.com. He started backpacking five years ago and has thought of doing little else since. He’s spent months in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. One day he hopes to explore Saturn…but only if he can bring his backpack.

Follow Michael here: 

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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

get-hotel-deals-asia-1

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

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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!

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.

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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

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

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No one knows how to nap like the Vietnamese.

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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

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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? 

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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.

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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!

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

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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)

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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.

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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

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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

southeast-asia-travel-sadec

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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Why Vietnamese Women Don’t Get Fat

Before I came to Vietnam, I was under the impression that Vietnamese women, and Asian women in general, were simply genetically gifted.

That is to say, I thought they just came out of the womb tiny and beautiful, and naturally stayed that way their entire lives without having to exude any sort of extra effort to do so.

After all, the  typical Vietnamese woman or Thai woman is all of the things Western women strive to be – thin, petite, with gorgeous straight hair and creamy, chestnut-colored skin (skin they spend their lives trying to whiten, but that’s another post).

They don’t get fat. They don’t age. They seem to be walking miracles of beauty, earthly Goddesses who can get away with wearing pajamas in public and somehow still manage to look fantastic.

Imagine my surprise when, after nearly four months in Vietnam, I began to realize that Vietnamese women put in a monstrous effort in order to remain tiny and thin and beautiful.

Sure, a small part of their good looks can be traced to genetic good fortune, but a larger part has to do with cultural habits that are woven into the fabric of their day.

Here are 7 things Vietnamese women do (and don’t do) in order to keep looking and feeling their best.

Warning: This post is filled with gross generalizations. 

1. They don’t eat wheat

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Notice I didn’t say carbs, I said wheat. There is a whole lot of rice being consumed here on the daily, but hardly any wheat or other grains. Noodles, dumplings, it’s all made out of rice.

A typical meal at my guesthouse consists of rice with a small serving of fish or meat (typically pork) plus vegetables and soup. No bread, no pasta, nothing fried, nothing microwaved.

It’s interesting to note that it’s most definitely white rice too, not supposedly-healthier brown rice we’ve always heard is better for you.

2. Their desserts aren’t sweet

You’d be hard-pressed to see a Vietnamese woman mowing down on some cake – heck, you’d be hard-pressed to find cake. One day at the beach I decided to treat myself to an ice cream cone, and I was given some sort of cross between sorbet and gelato – definitely not the creamy, fatty goodness I was looking for.

Traditional desserts are naturally sweet and include things like coconut, coconut milk, peanuts, fruit, and even beans. The other night I tried some kind of green tea gelatin thing, which was light years away from the Western idea of a dessert.

It’s brilliant thinking – make desserts kind of gross and no one will want them.

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Vietnamese women (and men, and kids!) also eat a lot of fruit. Fruit is incorporated into one’s daily diet – sometimes as dessert, sometimes as a snack.

But even the fruits aren’t as sweet as ours are – many are sour, bitter. People’s palettes are different, trained to enjoy foods that are healthy and dislike foods that are heavy, sugary, fatty.

My friend Tina took me for “dessert” one day and we had large glasses filled with all different types of fruit.

“Do you want sugar in yours?” she asked.

“Does the rain in Spain stay mainly in the plain?” I replied.

After we’d finished, I asked her if she had also gotten her dessert “with sugar.”

“Of course not” was her reply.

3. They don’t drink beer

After 3 months in Vietnam I have seen exactly two Vietnamese women drink beer. The first was this terribly obnoxious person who I think was on drugs, the second was my guest owner who indulged in half a glass of beer while out to dinner for a special occasion.

Beer, alcohol, and cigarettes are considered “men’s business” in Vietnam. It’s not ladylike to walk around sloshed, but it’s also not practical – women need to be stone cold sober so the house stays clean and the kids stay fed.

Thanks to these cultural roles and beliefs, the women also don’t develop beer bellies.

4. They LOVE to exercise

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The Vietnamese love to go to the beach and play in the water (though many don’t/can’t swim). They also love to exercise every day!

Whether it’s outdoor aerobics in the park or Tai Chi in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, they are out there, working it, in the early mornings or late afternoons.

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It also helps that in many cities across Asia there are outdoor exercise parks – imagine your health club, except outside, and free. Fitness is not only a cultural priority, it’s government-sanctioned.

5. They play with their kids

My current guest house owner is the general manager of a hotel and works up to 60 hours a week. But the second she comes home, she’s down on the floor, rolling around with her 9-year old daughter and 18-month old son.

They play, they dance, they sing, they laugh. Family time is a top priority, and I swear the calories she burns from chasing the baby around are a big part of what keeps her so slim.

6. Their food is labor-intensive

The Vietnamese make it really difficult to eat, which means they eat less, which in turn keeps them thin.

You can’t simply shovel food into your mouth, because that food first has to be unshelled, de-boned, pitted, separated, or defrocked in some way.

Nothing is packaged, most foods come straight from the source. So if you’re having shrimp, you first need to remove the shell and the head and the legs. And that takes time.

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At the end of your meal, you’ve spent about 50% of your time preparing to eat, and 50% actually eating. The end result is less food ends up in your stomach (and on your hips).

I think this technique in particular would be great for Americans. Make it harder for us to get at the pie – like, put it behind a locked glass door or at the end of a complicated maze – and we’re much less likely to eat it. Too much effort.

7. They’re constantly on the move

Vietnamese women are always on the move. My guest house owner is back and forth from work to home a half dozen times per day. She’s taking the kids to school, picking them up, going back to work, running to the market, and on and on and on, all day every day.

You might be saying “But Rebekah, I’m a stressed out mess and I’m constantly on the move too, how come I don’t weight 90 pounds?”

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The difference between our running around and the running around of Vietnamese women is that they do it joyfully.

If I have 87 places to go in a single day, I’m stressed out and grumbling. If Phuong has 87 places to go, she thinks nothing of it.

Why?

Because she has no sense of entitlement. We have this secret belief that we shouldn’t have to do all these errands – that someone else should be doing them for us.

We resent hard work, which is the main factor that leads to our increased stress levels (and we all watch Dr. Oz – stress is the #1 cause of weight gain!)

Vietnamese women, on the other hand, have no inkling that they shouldn’t have to work hard – they expect it. They accept it.

And because of that, life flows through them in a way that keeps them healthy and content with just enough.

Which of these habits could you see yourself adopting into your own life?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. They don't eat wheat

2. Their desserts aren't sweet

3. They don't drink beer

4. They LOVE to exercise

5. They play with their kids

6. Their food is labor-intensive

7. They're constantly on the move

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Top 10 Things Said During 6 Months of Travel

Last December, when I’d been out of the country for less than a month, I met Shirine, my friend and co-conspirator who frequently guest posts here on the blog.

At the time, Shirine had just finished 6 months of travel and was looking forward to another 5-6 years on the road.

I remember thinking “Wow! 6 months?! That is such a long time!”

The other day I passed the 6-month mark, and I really can’t believe I’ve made it this far, especially after getting off to such a rocky start.

I’m not a seasoned traveler like many bloggers – I’m a total newbie, especially compared to folks who’ve been on the road for 3, 5, 10 years.

But 6 months has been enough time to a) completely shift my perspective on, well, just about everything, and b) collect some awesome travel quotes.

I like when bloggers do milestone check-ins, recounting what they’ve learned after 12 months, 2 years, or a decade of nomadism.

Instead of going into what I’ve learned, which can be easily summed up as “Everything I thought I knew about everything was wrong,” I thought it’d be more fun to honor some of the verbal gems that have been thrown my way during my time in Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

#10 – “Why are you so fat?”

This woman is only 87 years old, but looks much older from a life of hard living

“Why are you so fat?”

Where it happened: A remote village somewhere outside Chitwan, Nepal

Who said it: A paper-thin, impossibly frail, startling ancient grandmother. She was 87 but looked about 127, and she wasn’t trying to be rude. She really wanted to know what the hell I was eating to make me 4x her size.

My response: “Because I’m American. Can I take your picture?”

#9 – “Your number is old, but your face is young”

"You number is old, but your face is young"

“You number is old, but your face is young”

Where it happened: Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Who said it: My friend Thida, after asking how old I was. She was interested in hooking me up with her friend Ritti, but once she found out I was 32 (ancient in Asia, but especially in Cambodia), she changed her mind.

My response: “Thank you. In my country, it’s hip to date older women. Ritti should reconsider. I can be his cougar.”

#8 – “You give me your money!”

Where it happened: On a rickety local bus somewhere between Sa Dec and Chau Doc, Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

Who said it: An old woman sitting next to me on the bus. I was the only foreigner on the bus, and when she saw me, I could see the wheels start turning.

I could tell she used to speak English, used to use it regularly, but that it had been years since she’d spoken the language, and languages have a funny way of abandoning you without constant attention.

She sat next to me, smiling and struggling, and I waited patiently for her to remember “Hello” and “How are you?” and “Nice to meet you, my name is Phuong.”

Instead, what popped out what the most important phrase in the English language,

My response: I smiled, repeated the phrase back to her, and held out my palm so she could give me her money. We had a good laugh and she didn’t pester me again.

#7 – “I would never eat my own dog”

Where it happened: Cat Ba Island  Vietnam

Who said it: My friend Mr. Tuyen as he was explaining the subtle nuances of dog-consumption to me.

“But to me, a dog is like a member of the family. I could never eat a dog.”

Mr. Tuyen then clarified that one never eats the family dog – that would be barbaric – one only eats other people’s family dogs. Or stray dogs, because they’re tasty too.

My response: “You’re sure this is chicken, right?”

#6 – “Why must you wash your body every day?”

"Why must you wash your body every day?"

“Why must you wash your body every day?”

Where it happened: The middle of nowhere in Nepal

Who said it: Deepak, in response to my request to take a shower after a gnarly round of food poisoning.

My request was denied because there was a) no shower, and b) no reason that Deepak could see to shower, since I’d just showered yesterday.

My response: Silence. Because when pressed, I honestly couldn’t think of one good reason that I absolutely had to wash my body every day.

#5 – “Turn! It! Off!”

"Turn! It! Off!"

“Turn! It! Off!”

Where it happened: That same village in Nepal

Who said it: A group of 12 screaming children who were first frightened, then awed, then utterly bored with my iPhone.

They sort of hated my iPhone, in fact, and had much more fun chanting “Turn! It! Off!” then they did playing with the phone itself.

My response: I turned it off, and we played with the goats instead.

#4 – “My father is possessed by the Monkey King”

Where it happened: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Who said it: My friend Ritti, as an explanation for his father’s symptoms of mental illness.

My response: “Why the Monkey King?” Why? Because my father screeches, scratches himself, throws things, and crawls around on the roof, that’s why.

The diagnosis actually sounded pretty reasonable to me when explained like that.

#3 – “What is this remedy?”

"What is this remedy?"

“What is this remedy?”

Where it happened: Chitwan, Nepal

Who said it: Deepak’s brother, after I asked him for some soap and hot water.

My response: “This remedy is called soap. It is a foamy liquid that, when used regularly, can prevent rounds of vomiting like the one I’ve just endured due to your total lack of soap-use in preparing my meal.”

Just kidding, I didn’t say that. But he really was curious, as if hot water + soap was some sort of magical elixir with powers to wake the dead and move mountains. As if he’d never seen someone combine the two before (and truth be told, he probably hadn’t).

#2 – “She is 13 and just married. I think it is too young.”

Where it happened: Nepal. The village. Are you starting to notice a pattern of one-liner awesomeness here?

Who said it: Deepak, when a 13-year old newlywed stopped by my sick room to ogle me along with the rest of the villagers.

My response: “Ya think?!

#1 – “You know, I won’t be a monk forever.”

"You know, I won't be a monk forever."

“You know, I won’t be a monk forever.”

Where it happened: Muang Ngoi Neua, Laos

Who said it: A 16-year old Buddhist monk who had just given me a tour of his temple.

My response: “I’m old enough to be your mother.” Ok, if I had gotten knocked up at 16. But still.

We then took some photos together, him giggling the entire time and saying things like “You know we can’t touch you, right?”

What’s the best one-liner you’ve heard while traveling?

What questions do you get asked all the time?

When people ask you questions that would be considered rude in your culture, does it piss you off or do you take it with a grain of salt?

Author: Rebekah Voss – the Founder of TheHappyPassport.com and a cheerleader for solo female travelers everywhere.

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

10. "Why are you so fat?"

9. "Your number is old, but your face is young."

8. "You give me your money!"

7. "I would never eat my own dog."

6. "Why must you wash your body every day?"

5. "Turn! It! Off!"

4. "My father is possessed by the Monkey King."

3. "What is this remedy?"

2. "She is 13 and just married. I think it is too young."

1. "You know, I won't be a monk forever."

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Angkor Wat Revealed [VIDEO]

Angkor Wat is the biggest tourist destination in Cambodia, and one of the most visited religious sites in the entire world.

I took a one-day tour of the Angkor grounds, starting with watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat, the largest temple in a labyrinth of seemingly endless ruins.

One-day entrance to the Angkor area costs $20 per person. I also paid $15 for a tuk tuk “tour,” which didn’t include a tour guide so much as a driver to take me from one site to another (totally needed – it can take 10-20 minutes to drive between the various ruins sites).

Many people cycle through Angkor, which is a great idea if it’s not 100+ degrees outside (which it most definitely was on this day!)

angkor-wat-horse

Here’s what struck me most about Angkor Wat:

  • the enormity of the ruins
  • the Hindu relics that demonstrate the Cambodian pilgrimage from the Indian Subcontinent
  • the fact that the Angkor empire has fallen so far from its position as the most powerful empire in Asia

angkor-wat-girl

Today the Cambodian people are ruled in much the same way as they were a millennium ago, but without the glory of the powerful Angkor kings.

angkor-wat-floating-rock

Their nation remains one of the poorest nations in the world, still devastated by the effects of war and corruption.

angkor-wat-lily-pad

I as wandered around the ancient ruins, it was incredible to imagine what life must have been like in Cambodia over 1,000 years ago.

The irony was that although the empire has long since fallen, many Cambodians live in much the same way as they did back then – in stilted bamboo huts with no electricity, no possessions, and not enough food to feed their children.

To watch the video, click play now: 

Correction! In the video I say the Angkor area is 400 sq miles, but I meant 400 square kilometers.

Are you subscribed to my Youtube channel? Be sure to subscribe here to see more quick+dirty tours like this one!

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Angkor Wat is a must-see tourist destination for anyone traveling in Southeast Asia

2. One -day entrance costs $20/person, but you get more bang for your buck if you buy a 2, 3, or 7-day pass (and believe me, you'll use it - there's no way to see this place in one day!!)

3. Subscribe to The Happy Passport Youtube channel for more travel tips, video blogs and quick+dirty tours - http://bit.ly/1l4HAJs

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Morning at Marble Mountain – Part 2

In our quest to see the entirety of Central Vietnam in a single day, Dan and I must move quickly – it’s already almost noon we’re only halfway done!

Having survived a near-death free fall from the top of Marble Mountain to the bottom, it’s time to head south to heavenly Hoi An.

11:47am: Hoi An Ancient Town 

We drop my bags off at my hotel, park the bikes, and continue on foot to Hoi An’s Ancient Town.

The city is set along the banks of the Thu Bồn River, its well-preserved ancient town bursting with colorful buildings and narrow, winding streets that make you feel you’ve stepped into another time and place.

120,000 dong ($6) gains you entrance into the five “attractions,” of your choice.

marble-mountain

Hoi An Ancient Town

We check out….

  • The Japanese Bridge
  • The Museum of History and Culture
  • The Tan Ky family house (200 years old and the ancestors of the original family still live here!)
  • The Cam Pho communal house, where Chinese immigrants held meetings and discussed town matters
  • The Quong Cong Temple, where huge circular spirals of incense are always burning to bless those who have purchased a “place” in the temple
marble-mountain-lanterns

Quong Cong Temple

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An

After a quick lunch of traditional Cao Lau, a Hoi An specialty noodle dish made with pork, fresh greens, peanuts, and mint leaves, we are off to our last destination – the incomparable My Son ruins!

2:12pm My Son

The Champa ruins at My Son date back to the 2nd century. This collection of Hindu temples is yet another UNESCO World Heritage site in Central Vietnam, and according to Dan, is supposed to be “the most beautiful place in the entire country.”

Pronounced “MEE sun,” My Son is about 50 kilometers from Hoi An.

We learn that the site shuts down at 5pm.

“How long will it take us to get to My Son?” we ask my hotel concierge.

“Two, two and a half hours” she says. “You’d better leave now.”

We exchange a look that says “There’s no way it’s going to take us over two hours to go 50 kilometers!”, hop on our bikes, and head southwest towards the sun.

4:52pm My Son?

It’s been nearly three hours since we’ve left Hoi An, and neither Dan, I, or our combined smartphone powers have been able to get us closer to our goal.

marble-mountain

Somewhere between Hoi An and My Son

Names of streets appear then disappear, or change completely, or never existed in the first place.

Highways suddenly end, turns are missed, roundabouts send us back where we came from.

But we’re on the right track now, we think. I hope.

The sun is inching ever closer to the horizon. I’m tired and stressed that it’s so late, but the incredible surroundings make it difficult to succumb to negativity.

We’ve been up and over an enormous mountain that offered sweeping views of endless green fields and colorful towns.

We’ve seen gravestones painted like Christmas presents, bright altars lined up along the perimeter of lush rice paddies.

We’ve descended said mountain into a secret valley where locals plough their fields with the help of beefy buffalo, and children’s eyes bulge at the sight of white skin.

Dan’s GPS steers us down a dirt road that’s becoming increasingly narrow, increasingly rocky.

We pass a group of construction workers and then there is nothing, just us, the road, fields in Vietnamese green and blue mountains like Japanese brush paintings.

The road becomes more of a path – the kind you walk on, not drive a motorbike upon.

We stop to double check our phones. Yep, according to King Google this is the way. And we’re close, maybe just another five kilometers.

If we get there before the strike of 5pm, maybe we can bribe the ticket taker to let us in, if only for a few minutes.

We’ve not lost hope! Let’s go! Let’s do this! Let’s….

Start the motorbike already.

Dan disappears around the bend, and I struggle with the ignition.

It’s not turning over.

I wait a second, breathe, then try again.

Dead.

Am I doing it wrong? This is my first day on a motorbike, after all, and there does seem to be a delicate finesse required as one presses the left handle while revving the right.

I try doing it wrong on purpose. I try doing it backwards. I try waiting. I try again.

Dan is long gone, out of site beyond the curve of the road, and I am alone, all alone in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the central coast of Vietnam.

The sun is starting to set, and there is a chill in the air at this higher elevation. I’m in nothing but a tank top, with nothing else to keep me warm.

Seconds tick by. Then minutes. Dan doesn’t return.

I watch my thoughts with interest. These are the moments in which I thrive. My mind can make a mountain out of a molehill, but when faced with an actual mountain, I become instantly present, instantly calm. Someone cutting in line in front of me at the airport gets me more riled up than this….

marble-mountain-sunset

I wonder if I could camp out in that rice field tonight…

This being the strong possibility of being stranded on a dirt road leading to nowhere, unforgiving rock face to my right, sweeping fields of nothingness to my left.

“I wonder how cold it will be if I have to sleep outside tonight?” I think.

“If I walk back now and try to find help, will someone steal my bike?” I think.

“Dan’s not coming back for me” I think. “I’ve slowed him down all day.”

And truly, I have. Something about Dan made me relax, to point of indulging in solo travel sloppiness. I was so relieved to have a travel partner, if only for a day, that I relied entirely upon Dan for my survival.

He watched as I lost control of the motorbike while parked, the heavy burden crashing to the ground in front of a group of locals.

He saved me when twice I tried to pay for a 10,000 dong bottle of water with a 100,000 dong note (they look so similar!)

Something about Dan made me let go, let my guard down, take a much-needed break from a constant state of self protection.

And now he is gone.

marble-mountain-featured

“Where the hell are we?”

I begin to worry about paying for two hotel rooms tonight – my room back in Hoi An and whatever room I can find after walking to wherever the nearest hotel might be.

My phone is about to die.

I start to shiver from the mountain air, and have resigned myself to leaving the bike and continuing back the way we came on foot, when….

A blue silhouette appears around the bend, backlit by the setting sun, a lone figure against fields of brilliant green.

He is running up the road toward me, an Adonis kicking up dust, a savior from some ancient dimension sent to rescue a maiden in distress.

I almost cry with relief, but Dan would never go for that, so I play it cool and wait patiently as he catches his breath – he’d gotten a few miles up the road before he noticed I was no longer behind him.

The bike is indeed dead, very dead, and just as we’re weighing our options as to what could possibly be done in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Vietnam, we hear a rumbling sound.

This road, this path, is definitely not made for motorbikes, and it’s most definitely not made for cars, let alone giant flatbed trucks.

And yet there it is – this truck that just happens to pull up right when we need help, just happens to be the kind of truck meant for hauling large items, just happens to be completely empty with a bed just dying for a dead motorbike.

With much hand gesturing, we get two Vietnamese construction-worker-angels to load the bike into their truck bed and drive me back to town while Dan follows behind on his motorbike.

They take me to the only motorbike repair shop in town, then drive off into the sunset as if they’d never existed.

“You didn’t thank them” says Dan.

The repair shop owner takes one look at the bike, one look at me, and grabs the key from my hand.

He places it into the ignition, puts a practiced palm on the handles, and starts the bike instantly.

Dan and I stare in shock. The owner – and surrounding children who’ve gathered to gawk – laughs heartily. He turns the bike off and turns it on again, just to rub it in.

 

7:45pm Back in Hoi An

Dan and I commiserate over dinner. Our mission has been a partial failure which, to a Wisconsinite like Dan, is a total and utter travel fail.

Drowning our sorrows in cao lau

“Hey, three out of four isn’t bad!” I say.

“My Son was the only thing I really wanted to see” says Dan.

At least we got to see Marble Mountain. And the charming ancient town of Hoi An. And some seriously breathtaking countryside that we never would have seen if we hadn’t gotten lost.

The moral of the story?

It’s stupid to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. You end up feeling rushed and stressed, and you don’t begin to scratch the surface of what your destination really has to offer.

Plus, you’ll probably end up lost in the middle of nowhere with a dead motorbike.

For Part 1 of A Morning at Marble Mountain, click here

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Technically, can you can see Da Nang, Marble Mountain, Hoi An and My son in a single day.

2. It's better to see less stuff than to try and cram a zillion things into a single day. We didn't have nearly enough time in Hoi An, and were so rushed that we ended up getting totally lost on the way to My Son.

3. I am infinitely grateful to a pair of construction-worker-angels who came to our rescue when my motorbike died in the middle of nowhere.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Morning at Marble Mountain – Part 1

The second I hear Dan’s voice I know I know him.

“California!” I shout, pointing at him in the middle of a hotel lobby in Da Nang, Vietnam.

“Wrong” he says. “Weak guess,” he says, and I instantly like him.

How ironic that I guessed he’s from my home-away-from-home, when it turns out he’s from my home-home, the great state of Wisconsin.

After having a very typical “Oh-my-God-you’re-from-Wisconsin-too?!” discussion, which inevitably includes phrases like “Miller Park!” and “Don’t you miss cheese?” and “Isn’t it funny how PBR is now a hipster thing?,” I learn that Dan is in Asia to teach English.

On a break between teaching gigs in South Korea and China, he has exactly 2 weeks to see Vietnam. And in true Sconie style, Dan is determined to use those 2 weeks to see all of Vietnam.

The next day I find myself renting a motorbike for the first time in my life and hoping to God Dan knows what he’s talking about when he says it’s “really easy” to ride.

7:23am China Beach, Da Nang

Swimming "spectacle" at China Beach

Swimming “spectacle” at China Beach

We start at China Beach in Da Nang because our hotel owner says that each day just after sunrise, hundreds of Vietnamese take to the sea for their morning swim. “A spectacle!” he says.

Our reward for waking up at this ungodly hour is half a dozen swimmers and a couple of dudes kicking around a soccer ball on the beach.

So there weren't hundreds of swimmers, but we DID see a few guys playing soccer!

So there weren’t hundreds of swimmers, but we DID see a few guys playing soccer!

“Fail” says Dan. “I’m in charge now.”

It’s all I can do to keep up with his speeding motorbike as it soars down the highway that hugs the coastline between Da Nang and Hoi An.

8:40am Marble Museum and outdoor showroom 

marble-mountain

Before we arrive at Marble Mountain, the next stop on our list, we’re distracted by an outdoor museum filled with enormous marble statues of all shapes and sizes.

There are many such places lining the road to Hoi An, which boasts 5-star resorts on the ocean-side of the road, and marble shop after marble shop on the mountain-side of the road.

It’s free to walk around and check out the statues, and we get the idea that purchasing one would easily cost billions of dong.

Before leaving we see a group of women polishing the marble, and one who even seems to be making adjustments to the size and shape of one of the statues with a power tool of some sort.

marble-mountain

I fancy her an exquisite artiste, though from looking at how the women are dressed and seeing their lack of a proper workspace, I assume the brilliant artistes are getting paid less than artiste wages.

9:01am On to Marble Mountain!

marble-mountain-rebs-on-bike

Not to be confused with Monkey Mountain, home to the biggest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam, Marble Mountain is south of Da Nang and is exactly what it sounds like – a giant mountain made of marble.

The hill juts out of the earth suddenly, as if someone had been slowly carving away at her foothills for centuries (and people have – where do you think all the marble statues come from?)

Dan’s stuff is back at the hotel in Da Nang, but I’m staying in Hoi An this week and have all of my worldly possessions balanced precariously on the motorbike.

We park and find that there are no lockers, so I stash my backpack with the parking attendant and opt to carry my laptop case – filled with computer, chargers, my DSLR camera, and anything else remotely valuable – up the mountain with me.

marble-mountain

Marble Mountain is filled with labyrinths and caves and temples built into the slippery rock. You can see and feel the marble beneath your feet, and have to be careful so as not to slip and slide all the way down to the ground!

Dan leads me into a cave and through a narrow opening in the rock that may or may not be an official climbing area.

This guy is from Wisconsin, which means I’ll never hear the end of it if I punk out, so I squeeze through the narrow rock tunnel, shoving my giant bag in front of me and pushing it upwards with my hands.

It's Dan!

It’s Dan!

Next thing I know, we’re climbing upwards at an incredibly steep incline, and the entirety of Central Vietnam  suddenly sparkles into view. A large, flat rock juts out above all the others, and Dan is quick to leap upon it.

“Get up here!” he says, do-see-do-ing with me since the rock is only large enough for one person.

Alright, it’s no Nepal, but I do sort of feel on top of the world.

Until I have to get back down.

Climbing up was easy, but in order to get back down I must leap from one rock to another. The problem? Said rocks are a good 5 feet apart, the space between revealing a 500-meter drop to a cartoonish-looking receptacle of sharp marble spikes below.

I picture myself splayed across those spikes, each one stabbed through various major arteries. I imagine Dan attending my funeral in Wisconsin and trying to explain to my mother how I perished on top of Marble Mountain.

“No big deal” says Dan.

“C’mon, we’re wasting time!” says Dan.

I dance back and forth, about to make the leap, then thinking better of it, then working up my courage again.

It takes a good five minutes, but I finally get a running start and shoot my legs in front of me, landing hard on the rock face and scraping my legs up in the process.

“Was that so hard?” says Dan, shaking his head.

Yes. Yes it was.

I’m antsy to get back on the road, knowing we have a lot left to see.

“Five more minutes” says Dan, turning the corner to enter yet another cave. He disappears briefly then reappears, waving for me to follow him.

And I’m so glad I did.

Check out the guard in the lower left corner of the photo to get a sense of the scale

Check out the guard in the lower left corner of the photo to get a sense of the scale

Huyen Khong Cave is easily the largest cave I’ve ever been in, and the most beautiful. It is positively massive, with an enormous Buddha statue carved into the rock face, floating high upon the cave wall above our heads.

Candles illuminate the din, the face of the Buddha in shadow except for a few rays of sunlight that stream in from cracks in the cave ceiling.

We are afforded a solid two minutes of solitude here before a mass of tourists break the silence, but in those two minutes neither of us speaks. The energy is palpable – a sacred place.

marble-mountain-7

For some reason, Chinese characters have been carved into the rock face just to the right of the Buddha.

Dan is studying Chinese for his upcoming work assignment, and is eager to look up the meaning.

We throw out guesses, expecting no less than the profound, wise words of the Buddha or some poetry from Lao Tzu.

"Big dark cave."

“Big dark cave.”

“I found the translation” says Dan.

“What does it mean?” I ask.

“It means, ‘big, dark cave’” says Dan.

God, I love Vietnam.

Check back for part 2 of this series where Dan and I head to Hoi An and My Son on our 1-day lightning fast tour of Central Vietnam.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Marble Mountain is definitely worth seeing - it's about halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang and is filled with beautiful temples, statues, and incredible caves.

2. Make SURE you wear slip-resistant shoes - the marble is incredibly slippery!

3. If you park "for free" at one of the many marble shops, you will be pressured heavily to buy something. If you don't, you'll probably be charged for parking. (luckily the parking and entrance fees are only a few dollars.)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

My Life in One Pair of Shoes

It all started when I broke my cardinal packing rule, AKA the Noah’s Ark Edict of 2013.

In preparing for world travel, I only allowed myself two of everything – two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, two long sleeved shirts, two bras, and so on.

The only areas in which I let myself splurge were with underwear and shoes.

I’ve never been as stylish as I’d like to be.  I’m not one of those women that can walk into a store, grab three pieces off three separate racks, and emerge from the dressing room looking like the lovechild of Audrey Hepburn and Jackie O.

Maybe it’s because while I greatly admire fashion and the fashionable, I just can’t be bothered to make the effort. I’d much rather sleep in than spend time putting myself together each morning. I’d much rather take a bicycle ride than go shopping.

Or maybe it’s because anything that looks dynamite on a 5’11”, 110-pound fashion model always manages to make me look like I’m wearing a Robin Hood costume. That, or Mr. Potato Head.

Whatever it is, I wasn’t blessed with an innate sense of style.

Unless you’re talking about shoes.

I speak the language of shoes the way other women speak French. I can look at a pair and instantly know if the heel is the right size, if the curve of the arch is tall enough, if the color is a bit too camel-toned.

I could probably pick out a fantastic pair of shoes just by feeling them with my eyes closed.

So when it came time for my great exercise in minimalism, it was easy to give up the fabulous leather jacket I’d never wear during springtime in Southeast Asia, and the cocktail dress that would be painfully out of place in Nepal.

But my shoes? How could I possibly narrow them down to just two pairs?

Nearly 6 months later, none of the four pairs of shoes that made it into my bag that fateful November day are with me any longer. They’ve perished, dissolved into the mist of world travel, sacrificed to unseen nomadic gods.

As the proud owner of only one pair of shoes at this moment in time, I thought it would be fitting to eulogize my fallen comrades, seeing that they’ve carried me some 7,000 miles around the globe and back again.

Shoelogy – Remembering those shoes no longer with us

1. DSW Boots

Beloved reminders of Los Angeles, devoted protector of lower legs, eclectic chameleons for any season

I don’t even remember the designer (see? So not a fashioinista!), but I bought these fantastic over-the-knee leather boots right before I left for Nepal, and refused to leave them behind.

Then I arrived in Nepal, and the sheer fabulousness of these boots seemed to scream “MY FOOTWEAR COULD BUY AND SELL YOU ALL THREE TIMES OVER!”

They were embarrassing, inappropriate. When it came time to leave Nepal for the 85° weather of Southeast Asia, I simply left them in my Kathmandu hotel room.

I hoped the guy who worked at the front desk would give them to his sister or his girlfriend.

It felt so good to be rid of them, like an enormous weight was lifted.

2. Super Cute Chinese Laundry Flats

Humble servants, queens of comfort, examples of that elusive, true beauty to which we all aspire

Yes, they were sort of ballet flats, which I realize is so-five-years-ago but I didn’t care.

They were patent leather in a shade of pink so pale, so understated that it was like wearing an 18th century Geisha on my feet.

During the great boot sacrifice of New Year’s Eve, 2013, I closed the door to my hotel room, thought better of it, opened the door again and unpacked my bag.

I placed one flat inside the left boot, the other inside the right boot.

That way, whoever inherited the boots would be gifted with a little something extra, like being given a new car only to be told “that’s not all – look what’s on the passenger seat.” (In my gift-of-car fantasy there’s always a diamond ring on the passenger seat.)

3. Really Comfortable Hipsterish Brown Sneakers from Sketchers

Champions of long walks, climbers of many mountains, supportive confidantes

I did everything in these sneakers. Hiked the Himalayas. Trekked through the mountains in Northern Laos. Went jogging along the oceanfront in Vietnam.

They were getting old, and kind of smelly, and rather than stink up my hotel room at night I’d leave them outside my door. I was staying in my dear friend’s guest house, and thought it highly unlikely that anyone would want to steal my smelly old sneakers.

Until I woke up one morning and they were gone.

“Mr. Ba!” I said. “Where are my sneakers?”

After a few phone calls and much discussion, it turned out that one of the new staff members threw them in the garbage when he was cleaning my room.

That was the turning point, the moment that lead me to…

4. One Single, Solitary Pair of Flip Flops

Beach lovers, protectors from dirty bathroom floors, whimsical scamps on a mission

And then the ocean ate my flip flops.

It was nighttime, and the moonlight tide swirled in all around me, soaking my clothes and gulping up my remaining pair of shoes. (But it wasn’t my fault – I was justifiably distracted when it happened.)

For a few hours of my life, I was completely and utterly shoeless.

I was then gifted with a new pair of flip flops to replace the ones gobbled up by the sea, and I’ve yet to add another pair to my collection.

I sort of don’t want to.

After all, in Southeast Asia one can perform most required tasks while wearing flip flops, including riding a motor bike, doing construction work, exercising, and working in the rice fields.

Plus, I sort of like having one pair of shoes. World travel has highlighted the importance of traveling light, sure, but it’s more than that.

I used to have this terror of letting go – like if I didn’t own enough shoes, or enough pairs of jeans, I wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t know who I was. I wouldn’t be seen. Ownership gave me an identity, a relationship to the world around me.

“I am Rebekah and those are my jeans, my laptop, my flip flops.”

When you’re sitting on the beach with the ocean sparkling beneath the moonlight and the taste of salt on your skin, you realize that the world has so much more to give you than shoes (or clothes, or a new car, or really good knives).

You realize that instead of making you feel more important, more secure, more together, the shoes have been blocking the moon from your view.

Of course, my shoelessness is infinitely different than many people’s shoelessness, because I can go out and buy another pair whenever I want. That’s not the case in many parts of the planet, as world travel to places like Nepal and Cambodia has been quick to reveal.

While I can’t promise I’ll be a one-shoe wonder forever, for right now it is the thing that is keeping me grounded, and the thing that’s teaching me who I really am – sans baggage, sans fear, sans desire to acquire more and more and more stuff, just for stuff’s sake.

Minimalism is addicting, like getting a tattoo. If it feels this good to own one pair of shoes, imagine how I’ll feel with one shirt? One pair of pants? One pair of underwear?!

Okay, maybe not one pair of underwear, but you get the idea.

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. Accidentally owning a single pair of shoes has been the most spiritually fulfilling part of world travel thus far.

2. A Shoelogy is a eugoly for all the shoes you’ve lost during your travels. Don’t forget that it’s important to grieve.

3. Outfits that look good on fashion models make me look like Robin Hood.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Top 10 Travel Photography Tips for Aspiring Shutterbugs

Your visa is secured, the flight is booked, and you’ve been willingly injected with a cocktail of vaccinations to protect you from diseases you can’t even pronounce.

In short, you’re finally off to see the world!

In addition to scribbling wildly in a wine-stained journal and blogging about your adventures, you’re probably going to want to take some photos of your trip.

The problem? You have no clue how to take a great photo, and the last thing you want is to have your pictures of such a life-changing period in your life turn out like a fourth grade art project.

Before you resign yourself to applying 37 Instagram filters to each and every lackluster snapshot, check out these top 10 travel photography tips from professional travel photographer Etienne Bossot.

Based in Hoi An, Vietnam, Etienne spends his days helping newbie and established photographers capture the beauty of their travel dreams on camera and in living color.

Travel photography tips from an actual travel photographer

1. Get some gear

travel-photography-tips-2

And by gear I don’t mean big, expensive gear. I mean something from this century. Technology is evolving so quickly that just about any kind of camera you buy today is going to be light years better than a used camera from five years ago.

Look at the latest trends, like the new lightweight DSLR cameras. They’re as small and compact as a cheap digital camera but take photos comparable to their bulkier counterparts.

2. Learn about settings

travel-photography-tips-3

Spend a little time learning about your camera’s settings.  Nowadays the auto mode of most cameras is more intelligent than ever, but why let your camera have all the fun?

Adjusting your settings as you shoot gives you far more control over your photos than simply leaving your camera in auto mode. Besides, there are only 3 things you need to know to be in total control of your camera, anyway.

3. Do your homework

travel-photography-tips-4

If you only want to capture tourist snapshots for Grandma to see, then stop reading this instant.

We’ll wait for you to leave.

Phew, not that she’s gone, let’s dive in to the juicy stuff – creative inspiration. I want you to do some research on the place you’re traveling to by searching for relevant photographs. You can use Google search, Flickr or 500px to find high quality images.

Find photographs that inspire you and save them somewhere you can see them. These will serve as a jumping off point for the photographs you’ll be taking in the very near future!

4. Stalk someone you like

travel-photograph-tips-5

…on social media, that is.

In step #3 above, you probably found at least a few photographers whose work you love. Connect with them via social and check out their blogs.

In addition to examples of great photography, you will most likely find a huge amount of information on the craft of photography.

If you’re following a travel photographer, you’ll score travel photography tips in the form of top secret shooting locations, cultural idiosyncrasies, and so on.

5. pho·tog·ra·phy (or, the immense importance of light)

travel-photography-tips-6

How can you begin to master a craft if you don’t even know what it means?

In case you skipped out on all of your Ancient Greek classes at school, the word “photography” literally means “writing with light.”

Yes, it is that simple. You camera is your pen. The light is…well, the light!

Once you understand that, you’ll understand that beautiful light gives you beautiful photos.

And when is the light most beautiful?

Before 8am and after 4pm, so don’t forget to pack your alarm clock!

6. Get to know your subject

travel-photography-tips-7

If you are keen on landscape photography, go back and re-read tip #5, because it’s all about the right lighting.

travel-photography-tips-11

If you want to photograph people, learn about the customs of the place you’re visiting. For example, you will probably have a much easier time approaching people in SE Asia than you would in, say, Saudi Arabia.

7. Get lost

travel-photography-tips-8

I’ll go ahead and assume that since you’re a solo female traveler you’re not traveling in a country that’s particularly dangerous.

If that’s the case, I give you permission to get lost!

If you stay where all the other tourists are, and only visit sites all the other tourists are visiting, chances are you’ll be taking the exact same photos Aunt Jane took when she visited Thailand 10 years ago.

Get lost, get away from the tourist areas, find some local villages and walk through them. People will be surprised and happy to see you there, and that will make your experience – and your photos – that much more captivating.

8. Get close

travel-photography-tips-8

If I could only give you one tip it would be this one – get close to your subject.

There are many reasons why this is important, but getting close will greatly improve the overall quality of your photos (not to mention help you immerse yourself in the culture and make friends with locals).

Disclaimer: this tip does not apply to African safaris!

9. Lose the badittude

travel-photography-tips-9

Remember that you are a guest visiting another country and culture – smile! Your attitude and approach will have a huge impact on both your subjects and the photos you take of them.

10. Shoot!

travel-photography-tips-10

You’ll most likely be using a digital camera, so start shooting! Don’t be shy, and remember that the best shots almost never happen within the first few clicks. Work your subject and shoot as much as you can.

What questions do you have for Etienne about his travel photography tips? Post them below!

Etienne Bossot is a French photographer who’s been based in Hoi An, Vietnam for the past 7 years. In addition to shooting commercial and travel assignments for local publications and huge corporations, Etienne runs a variety of photography tours and workshops throughout Southeast Asia. For more information on his photography and photo tours, visit http://www.picsofasia.com/photo-tours/

All photos © 2014 Etienne Bossot

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37 Crazy Things I’ve Seen While Traveling Abroad

Traveling abroad has completely shifted my perspective on a lot of things, but what’s changed the most is what it takes to shock me.

When I first started traveling abroad I remember being surprised to see stray dogs and cats just walking around wherever they pleased. I couldn’t believe there was no toilet paper in the bathrooms. I couldn’t believe grown men were peeing on the side of the road like the world was their toilet!

Now all of that stuff feels completely normal, as do a lot of the items on my list below.

So when I say the things I’ve seen are “crazy,” I don’t mean it as a judgment. I just mean crazy to a Westerner who’s never imagined these kinds of things before, let alone experienced them firsthand.

All of these visions have been burned into my mind – some of them are impossibly beautiful, others terrifying, others devastatingly sad. I love each of them because they serve as reminders of my state of mind at each phase of my journey, and through them I’m able to track my own prejudices unraveling.

#1

A mother pulling down her 2-year old son’s pants, positioning him to face me, then flicking his penis with her fingers to make him start peeing. Both of them stared at me somewhat menacingly as he proceeded to relieve himself. [LAOS]

#2

Vietnamese women physically pushing and even punching each other while standing in the ocean in thigh-high rubber boots. Apparently this is a ritual that plays itself out each morning as fishermen bring in their catch from the night before – sort of like MMA fighting meets The Old Man and the Sea. [HOI AN, VIETNAM]

#3

A monkey riding a donkey riding a truck [DA NANG, VIETNAM]

 #4

A man hanging on a suspended wire over an enormous gorge that must’ve been a 1000-meter drop to the river below. He was sitting in a makeshift basket that had been designed as a transportation pod of sorts, and he was pulling himself across the great divide using nothing but the strength of his arms. [NEPAL]

#5

A man transporting 25-foot wooden planks on his motorbike. The tail end of the bundle was propped up on top of a bicycle which was dragged along behind him. [VIETNAM]

#6

Cambodian fisherman casting their nets in the Siem Reap River right next to the spot where construction workers were dumping cement and (presumably) chemicals into that same river. [CAMBODIA]

#7

A Lao woman changing into her bathing sarong right in front of a huge group of foreign tourists, and bathing in the river with her naked sons as if 100 pairs of eyes weren’t watching them. [LAOS]

#8

A very-much-alive pig strapped to the back of a motorbike. The craziest part was that the pig wasn’t squealing in protest. [LAOS]

#9

A Cambodian girl in the laciest, most delicate formal dress imaginable mounting an enormous motorcycle and driving off into the dusty sunset. No one ever looked so much like they were starring in a music video of their own life. [PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA]

traveling-abroad-girl-in-dress#10

A very-much-alive wild bird resting in the hands of a Vietnamese man, who would periodically stretch out its wings to full span, just for fun. The bird did not struggle or squawk or try to get away. I still don’t understand this, it was like he was some sort of bird whisperer. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#11

The dismembered, fully-cooked body of an endangered Cat Ba langur right before it was eaten by my Vietnamese friends. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#12

Rat’s nests of wires in Nepal that were so tangled and thick they blocked out the sun – and yet still somehow managed to provide electricity 67% of the time. [POKHARA, NEPAL]

#13

Young Khmu village children who had been trained to pose for photos with tourists, and who sat for nearly an hour modeling for our group. Older children who were no longer “cute enough” watched the photo shoot from the sidelines, like cast members of Annie who’d been fired for being too tall. This was perhaps the most disturbing and conflicting thing I’ve seen. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

traveling-abroad-laos

 #14

A Nepalese girl in high heels and a knockout red dress climbing an enormous hill with a bundle of 6-foot long sticks thrust over her shoulder. [NEPAL]

#15

A drunk Nepalese man attempting to stab another man with a butcher knife in the middle of a busy Turkish restaurant in Pokhara, Nepal. [POKHARA, NEPAL]

#16

An infant in Nepal being given a hard candy to eat and a plastic bag to play with. The crazy part was that he neither choked nor suffocated. [VILLAGE NEAR CHITWAN, NEPAL]

Please don't choke on that hard candy little baby!

Please don’t choke on that hard candy little baby!

#17

Monks doing everything you’d think monks shouldn’t do – texting on iPhones, flirting with girls, saying things like “y’know, I won’t be a monk forever” and then winking. [LAOS]

#18

A Nepali woman washing her dishes with clods of dirt (because when there is no soap available, you use….dirt.) [CHITWAN, NEPAL]

#19

A Cambodian man holding what must’ve been 15-feet long, 1-foot wide mirrors upright on the back of a motorbike as he rode in the passenger seat. He held the base and the remaining 13+feet of flimsy mirror flapped back and forth like a skinny palm tree swaying in the breeze, practically hitting other motorists that were driving in front of and behind him. [SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA]

#20

A mama monkey breast feeding her baby monkey at The Monkey Temple in Kathmandu. [KATHMANDU, NEPAL]

 #21

My guest house owner chasing after her 8-year old son with what could only be described as a pitch fork. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#22

Wild cows as thin as deer living in the mountains in Laos. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

 

I am not a deer.

I am not a deer.

#23

A man tracking fowl with an “informant chicken.” This back-stabbing chicken had been trained to call the other chickens out of the woods just so his owner could shoot them. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

#24

My trekking guide cutting a foot-long section of bamboo from an enormous shoot and whittling it into a flute in a matter of minutes (I still have the flute and play it sometimes when I’m feeling pensive). [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

#25

An entire village of Khmu people gathered in a single room around a single tiny television set. [LUANG PRABANG, LAOS]

#26

A beautiful young woman in a fabulous fuchsia coat riding side saddle on the back of a moving motorbike while reading the daintiest velvet-covered book. I watched as she carefully turned a single page and continued reading, as if she was taking tea in a European drawing room instead riding a moving vehicle in the middle of a crowded highway. [VIETNAM]

#27

Nepali men unloading huge tanks of gas next to a pig roasting over open flames. [POKHARA, NEPAL]

Open flames? Cool, let's unload our tanks of gas here.

Open flames? Cool, let’s unload our tanks of gas here.

#28

Men sleeping on top of sacks of grain that had been piled 30-feet high on the back of a moving truck. [NONG KHIAW, LAOS]

#29

A spa in Cambodia that looked pretty typical at first, with large hanging posters of women getting beauty treatments and enjoying hot stone massages, but upon closer inspection revealed one enormous, framed poster of…..Leonardo DiCaprio (wha??). It was like he was some sort of god, and every treatment was meant to beatify the recipient in preparation to meet Father Leo. [PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA] #random

#30

Two newborn kittens dying in the Cambodian heat, their eyes crusted over with disease. They were so near death that they wouldn’t even drink water. [SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA]

#31

People in a Cambodian fishing village just outside Siem Reap living in thatched, open air huts with no doors, no windows and no possessions. They didn’t even have a mat to sleep on, which meant they had to lie down on the bare wood floor in order to rest. [SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA]

#32

A baby with a distended stomach playing with her healthier brothers and sisters and unconcerned-looking mother. [CAMBODIA]

#33

An Australian man complaining about getting paid $200/month in Cambodia in front of his local colleagues who made $50/month. [CAMBODIA]

#34

Grown men wearing women’s sun hats – pink ones, with flowers. [CHINA, VIETNAM]

#35

A two-year old Vietnamese kid being dressed in girl’s clothing by his parents so they could laugh at him and take pictures. [CAT BA, VIETNAM]

#36

Makeshift gas stations that look like hospital IVs, where the gasoline is stored in clear pouches or bottles and administered to your motorbike as if it was a sick patient. [VIETNAM, CAMBODIA]

#37

An elephant slapping my hand with her trunk. I thought she was giving me a high-five, but she probably just wanted a banana.

What crazy things have you seen while traveling abroad?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Since traveling abroad I've seen my fair share of

- public urination

- live animals put into extremely uncomfortable situations

- starving children

- enormous objects being transported by motorbike

- women in pretty dresses doing manual labor

I've also seen a decidedly evil informant chicken whose questionable morality continues to haunt me.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Teaching English in Taiwan

Tell me that doesn't look like what it obviously looks like.

I’m awoken from a deep sleep – the kind that only severe, flight-around-the-world jetlag can create.

A curious sound begins pulsating slowly, steadily. It is a dull thud wrapped inside a dream, a deep, melodic moaning that begins in my belly and rises steadily, gently into my waking consciousness.

One hundred monks have gathered in the temple next door, their sole task to rouse me from my sleep as if today, of all days, will be the most special of my life.

It is 5:13am, and the air in Taipei is no cooler at this hour than it’s been at the sweltering peak of high noon.

I lie on the hard hostel bed listening to the harmonic chanting, deep and rich and straining to reach God. To feel God. To become God.

I’m absolutely certain at the time that this will remain one of the most beautiful, sacred moments of my life.

The room where the monk magic happened.

The room where the monk magic happened.

So how, after being awoken to the glorious, mysterious, unexpected chanting of Buddhist monks outside my window, could the rest of my time in Taiwan be so friggin’ awful?

I had signed a year-long contract to teach English at a private primary school in Chang hua, a sleepy suburb in the central coast on the western side of the island, about 100 miles southwest of Taipei.

I have yet to meet anyone else – not a single living soul – who disliked visiting and/or teaching English in Taiwan.

My experience was a massive travel fail, and after having some time to consider why I hated it there so much, I’ve come up with these 5 questions I wish I would’ve asked myself before signing that contract.

1. Do I LOVE teaching English?

I boarded the plane to Taiwan with a TEFL certificate I’d earned online. I found the course really challenging, even frustrating, and I had to force myself to muscle through each module.

I had enjoyed my previous experience as a theatre teacher in Miami and working one-on-one with ESL students in Miami and Los Angeles. I adored working on pronunciation and intonation – a throw back to my years as a theatre baby.

But pronunciation is one very small part of teaching English, and I had failed to account for all the friggin’ grammar I’d be responsible for imparting to beginning Taiwanese students.

What’s more, I never would’ve taught English at home.

When the glitz and glamor of teaching English in Taiwan wore off, and it was really just teaching English, I realized what a big mistake I had made. A classroom is a classroom, and you’ll be in it, many hours per day, doing the job you’ve been hired to do.

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

Sweltering August sky in Taipei

For some reason, I hadn’t thought about that. I’d been swept up in the idea of teaching overseas – hell, in the idea of just going overseas.

I thought about the money I’d make, the people I’d meet, and all the wonderful places I’d get to go. Maybe I’d weekend in the Philippines! Spend spring break in the mountainous regions of Eastern Taiwan! Fly to Vietnam on a whim!

The first day I arrived at my school, all of the teachers and staff were gathered for a weekly meeting where they discussed problems with students, upcoming events, and so on.

The head of the school turned to me in the middle of the conversation and said “Rebekah, what ideas do you have about new curriculum for our 1st grade students?”

Luckily one of my co-teachers jumped in and defended me, saying “She just got here, give her a break!”

If she hadn’t, I might have actually uttered the words “I don’t have any ideas, and I hope nobody ever asks me that question again as long as I live.”

I was a square peg in a round hole. God bless all teachers everywhere, and God bless that moment for revealing to me that I did not, could not, under any circumstances, remain where I was.

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

I really, really thought that I’d work 40 hours a week and spend my weekends traveling. Unfortunately, the school had other ideas.

When I got there, and only after I got my teaching schedule, I realized that my 40+ hours were spread out between 8am and 9pm, 6-7 days per week.

Meaning I’d work Saturdays. And sometimes Sundays. And be accountable to someone 12-13 hours per day, nearly every day.

There were breaks in between classes, yes, but for me finishing a class at 4pm and having to return to teach again at 6pm felt like I was working the entire day, almost like an on-call nurse.

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

Why does everyone else seem to be enjoying their food?

There wouldn’t be time to go anywhere on the weekends when weekends only lasted one day.

I was saturated with the school – the school was Taiwan, it was my entire experience of Taiwan besides a few brief but fascinating days in Taipei.

There wasn’t time to do anything else but work. When there was time, I was too exhausted to do anything about it.

I found myself thinking “What’s the point of being here when I’m stuck in a classroom all the time? I could be doing this at home and getting paid a lot more.”

Ok, the getting-paid-more part may or may not have been true, but it sure felt true at the time.

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in?

Not only had I never been to Taiwan before; I’d never been to Asia before. Nothing could have prepared me for the intense culture shock I experienced the second I landed in Shanghai.

My own ignorance astounded me during those first few days. Somehow, I really imagined that most everyone I encountered would speak at least some English (why did I think that?!).

I also had no idea that people were still doing things like working in rice fields and living off the land. I had expected some kind of modernized, Westernized society to have sprung up across Asia, making the entire continent feel like a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Chicago.

Here’s the most embarrassing part – I had no idea that menus and signs would be written entirely in Chinese characters. I had expected everything to be accompanied by pinyin, the romanized version of simplified Chinese. In my ignorance, I also thought most places would have things written in English.

Shandao Temple in Taipei

Shandao Temple in Taipei

I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a Shanghai restaurant and was met with a giant menu board written entirely in Chinese. In that moment, all of my months listening to Pimsleur Chinese CDs became obsolete.

I could say “Hello,” “thank you,” and “I speak Chinese very badly” about 7 different ways, but I couldn’t decipher a single character. I was regressed back to childhood – illiterate, confused, alone. It was an awful, terrifying feeling I’ll never forget.

4. Am I in a good place in my life, like, mentally?

I really, really wish I would’ve asked myself this question before teaching English in Taiwan!

I wasn’t going to Taiwan because I was passionate about teaching English, or because I was particularly interested in Taiwanese culture. I was going because I didn’t know what else to do with my life.

An unexpected career change had left me in limbo. I dreamed of studying French in Paris, or backpacking Europe, but I was under the impression that it’d be way too expensive.

So I decided to teach English in Taiwan in order to save money to go to Paris later. In this way, I totally set myself up for failure. I was in it for the money, and after taxes the money was pretty much crap anyway.

Not only was I confused and directionless (a common hazard of being 29 going on 30), I had the brilliant idea to get involved with someone back home right before I left.

This genius decision resulted in hour after hour of tearful phone calls as he begged me to come home and marry him and have babies and forget Taiwan once and for all.

Culture shock + lack of passion + cute guy proposing marriage = get me out of Taiwan, stat.

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all bad.

The other teachers I worked with were absolutely wonderful human beings; well traveled, open minded, and incredibly patient with me as I wallowed in misery on their forest green couch for weeks on end.

They even let me live on that same couch after I’d decided to leave the school, and never once complained (at least not to my face) that I was being the biggest Debby Downer ever (which I absolutely was).

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

Offerings to Buddha in Taipei

The kids were great as well. There was Hank, who at 4 years old had the scratchy, sultry voice of a has-been Las Vegas lounge singer. And little Cindy Lou, who fell into fits of delicious giggles every time I practiced my numbers in Chinese.

And there were great morning workouts with Zoe, a fellow teacher who’d just graduated military school and volunteered to be my personal trainer at 6am each day. Doing planks and pushups next to elderly Taiwanese practicing Tai Chi was always invigorating, even in the oppressive heat.

But I had zero desire to teach. I missed my boy back home. I couldn’t find anything I liked to eat after being served soup with what I swear-to-God was some animal’s penis floating in it. And I was completely closed off when it came to accepting cultural differences.

It was perfectly ok for the Chinese teachers to hit the kids, and to shame them in front of the others students if they misbehaved. (note – people in Taiwan often, if not always, referred to themselves as “Chinese,” which is why I just did too.)

One boy was made to wear lipstick in front of the class, while another was threatened with a diaper if he didn’t shape up (as in, he’d have to wear a diaper all day to show what a ‘baby’ he was being.)

Finally, a tale circulated about the worst punishment of all – being placed inside a large metal can or box that was 2-3 feet above the student’s head, making it impossible for them to climb out but easy for other students and teachers to peer in and taunt them.

Depending on the transgression, a kid could be imprisoned in the box-of-shame for hours on end.

Now it’s not my place to say whether all of this behavior is right or wrong. I’m not interested in making judgments, and I really think it’s impossible for a Western mind to understand the nuances of morality as experienced in another culture.

At the time, however, it was too much for me to bear. I couldn’t be a part of it.

The other teachers were fine with it because they knew something I didn’t – that there is relativism to right and wrong, and that the kids undergoing these punishments were no more traumatized than you were when you had your name written on the board in 4th grade. It’s simply how things are done in Taiwan, and everyone – teachers, students, parents – is perfectly fine with it.

My limited mind didn’t see it that way, though. I thought the Western teachers had turned into desensitized monsters. Pretty soon they’d be hitting the kids and putting them in diapers as well. I refused to put diapers on anyone over the age of 3, godammit!

So I left, like a chicken, my feathers between my legs.

Learning from my mistakes

For some reason, my second journey to Asia has been the incredible eye-opening experience I’d hoped the first time would be. Who knows why the second time’s the charm, but it is, and I’m grateful.

I’ve even eaten bone-in fish, fresh crab eggs, and shrimp with the eyeballs in-tact and enjoyed every bite of it!

If you’re thinking of teaching English in Taiwan, learn from my mistakes!

Before you sign your contract…..

  • Make sure you really, really like teaching English
  • Be prepared to work a full time job, and realize that working is going to be your main (perhaps your only) activity for the duration of your contract
  • Visit the country you’ll be teaching in before committing to a lengthy contract. Regardless of what recruiters will tell you, I think it’s almost always easier to find a job once you’re in-country anyway – you just have to time it right.
  • Bring a mind so open its prepared for anything.
  • Don’t expect it to be just like home, because it won’t be – that’s the greatest part about teaching English abroad, and it’s the part I completely missed. Of course the food is different, and the language is different, and the values are different, and the people are different. That’s why you’re teaching in another country in the first place, right?

Have you ever taught English abroad?

Did you experience major culture shock like me?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

Before signing your contract to teach English abroad, ask yourself:

1. Do I LOVE teaching English? Like, reeeeeally love it?

2. Will I be happy working a full time job that just happens to be in another country?

3. Have I ever been to the country I’ll be working in and am I suuuure I want to live there for an entire year?

4. Am I mentally prepared for all of the stresses that come with moving to another country? Is this a good time in my life to make such a big change?

5. Do the positives of teaching English abroad outweigh the negatives?

If you answered YES to most of the above, then have at it!!!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

9 Reasons You’ll Lose Weight Traveling

Forget your fear of packing on the pounds after a 10-day Caribbean cruise. Where you’re going, there are no all-you-can-eat buffets, thousand-calorie cocktails or cheese lover’s pizza.

Hell, there probably isn’t even cheese.

Where you’re going, my friend, is to a magical land of effortless travel weight loss, where the very foods you eat and air you breathe will melt the pounds away faster than you can say “How can I do this at home?”

Here are 9 reasons why long-term, international travel will help you lose weight (sometimes whether you like it or not.)

1. You’ll get sick

Ok, I hope that it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting you try and get food poisoning.

That being said, you probably will get food poisoning at some point during your travels. If not the full-blown, coming-out-both-ends version, you’ll at least get traveler’s diarrhea as your stomach attempts to navigate the rocky waters of so many foreign invaders being dumped down your gullet.

The good news is that once you’ve recovered (as a mean, lean, 10-pounds-lighter version of you), your system will be able to handle just about anything.

travel-weight-loss-7

Best crab ever or worst food poisoning yet?

Get sick early in your trip, and you can relax the rest of the time you’re traveling. Hell, after my Exorcist-like episode in Nepal, my immune system is so strong I don’t even have to wash my hands anymore.

Kidding. Kind of.

2. The food is fresh

Meet your dinner.

Meet your dinner.

That chicken you’re eating never saw the inside of a truck, was never shipped anywhere, and was never frozen. In fact, she probably lived about a block away from the restaurant you’re eating in right now.

In the absence of hormones, preservatives, and the chemicals we’re used to ingesting when we eat at home, the body begins to deflate at lightning speed.

You can even choose “bad” foods – like fried foods, and bread – because somehow even those are less fattening.

My theory is that all of the ingredients used in Southeast Asia, and even in developing areas of Eastern Europe, are just “closer to home” – the butter was churned a few doors down, the flour was milled at a local farm, the milk came out of someone’s friend’s cow a few hours ago.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that freshness is much more important than the ingredients themselves when it comes to losing weight. Pancakes in Los Angeles make me fat. Pancakes in Vietnam do not.

3. You’re constantly active

travel-weight-loss-4

When you’re traveling, the majority of your time is spent doing stuff, seeing stuff, then getting up early the next day to go do and see even more stuff.

A lot of the time, the coolest stuff can only be accessed via exercise. That is to say, in order to experience what you’ve come to experience, you must first hike to the stupa, climb the waterfall, kayak down the river or cycle across town. In a lot of cases, there simply are no non-exertive (read: motorized) options available.

Even if you’re not into exercise or adventure travel, you’ll end up exercising more than ever simply by going to see cool stuff in whatever town you’re in.

I mean, you’re not going to not see the largest Buddha statue in Vietnam, just because it’s at the top of 200 steps, right? Right.

4. You’ll eat less

Hungry? Here ya go.

Hungry? Here ya go.

People eat less in other parts of the world. In Nepal, dahlbat is served 2x per day, and there’s rarely snacking in between.

In many of the Asian countries I’ve visited, it seems that locals simply don’t eat that much, at least by Western standards. One or two meals per day is the norm.

In Taiwan, on the other hand, people seemed to eat constantly, but it’s always something small – a smoothie, a handful of nuts or seeds, a chicken foot. The eating habits of the entire country make a great case for the whole metabolism-boosting theory.

And yes, a chicken foot.

What surprised me most was how easy it was to fall into the routine of infrequent eating. In Taiwan, I ate less because I was a) a big chicken, and b) too afraid to try a big chicken (foot).

In my subsequent travels, I’ve found it really easy to adopt the eat-to-live habits of those around me.

Again, I’m no scientist and no diet expert. All I know is that when I’m around people who eat less, I eat less, and when I eat less, I lose weight.

5. You’ll feel like a heffer

I feel ginormous.

I feel ginormous.

So….Americans are fat. We all know this. We see the reports of epidemic obesity on the nightly news, we joke about our portion sizes, we marvel at the mesmerizing 500-pound creatures who tend to frequent state fairs…

But it’s not us, right? We’re normal. We could stand to lose 10 pounds, sure, but we’re not overweight.

And then you step off the plane…..

I’m not saying you should lose weight. However, being around people who are infinitely more fit than you are does something to your psyche.

I believe that people are like fish – we adapt to our environment. Put us in a big fish bowl with lots of space, we’ll eat more and grow large. Put us in a tiny space with other tiny fish, we’re sure to follow suit.

Besides, it’s impossible to feel sexy next to gorgeous 90-pound Thai women who manage to make that weight look not only healthy, but like it’s the epitome of femininity.

You may not be inclined to shoot for double digits, but you may very well be inclined to shoot for your own healthy number.

6. You’ll have to wear a swimsuit

travel-weight-loss-9

High heels and model pose are optional.

It’s not hard to never wear a swimsuit at home, but when you’re traveling, there’s always a pool, a sauna, or a midnight skinny-dipping opportunity that seems to be calling your name.

You’re not going to want to feel gross in your swimsuit – especially next to all the tiny local girls!

7. There’s no dairy or wheat

things this delicious actually CAN be good for you

Things this delicious actually CAN be good for you

This reason applies specifically to Asia, where dairy and wheat are rarely used in traditional cooking. You won’t even notice they’re missing either, as you try all sorts of fresh, flavorful, delicious dishes that’ll make you say “Laughing Cow, Schmaffing Cow.”

Rice is no longer your side dish, it’s your God.

It’s your go-to ingredient for everything from noodles to soup to – well, to actual rice. Especially in Asia, you can trust that just about everything is made from rice, meaning you’re essentially removing wheat and gluten from your diet without even trying.

When you eat “naughty” foods you love from home, like noodles and desserts, you’re actually eating rice whether you realize it or not.

Your daily diet will consist of fresh meats or tofu, vegetables, seafood, fruits, soups, and rice, instead of bread, cheese, pizza, and sandwiches. You won’t even be tempted by those foods because a) they won’t even be available, or b) they’ll be available but crazy expensive.

After a little while, you’ll start to feel so clean and energized that indulging in dairy or wheat just makes you feel bloated and lethargic. Who needs ice cream anyway when you can have mango sticky rice drenched in coconut milk? [insert Homer Simpson donuuuuuuuut noise here].

And the best part is that this massive diet change happens naturally – without you having to “try and be good.”

8. You’ll hate the food

Hungry?

Hungry?

I hope this doesn’t ever happen to you, but it’s happened to me. While I didn’t relish spending a month in Taiwan subsisting almost entirely on Ramen noodles, I did lose 10 pounds.

If you hate the food and can’t find anything you like, losing weight is inevitable. [Sidenote: I absolutely realize that there is delicious food in Taiwan and that it’s one of Asia’s greatest culinary destinations. Unfortunately, due to a massive attack of culture shock,  I just didn’t realize it while I was there.]

What’s remarkable is that in the West, we’re so used to being able to get whatever we want to eat, whenever we want it. But in many parts of the world, that luxury simply doesn’t exist. And if you don’t speak the language and can’t ask for what you want, you’re even more shit out of luck.

But look on the bright side – those rumbling hunger pangs are going to make that bikini look better than ever.

9. You’ll sweat your balls off

Sweat stains are SO hot this season.

Sweat stains are SO hot this season.

Have a wedding coming up and want to shed a few pounds? Fly to Siem Reap in April. Or try Taipei in August. You’ll be sweating all day and night. If you’re lucky enough to have AC, you’ll sweat the second you walk outside. Don’t worry about looking like a disheveled jerk, either – everyone rocks sweat stains during the hot season.

I’ve never been good at losing weight, and I’m a notoriously inconsistent exerciser. But since I’ve been traveling in Asia, I’ve lost 10 pounds without even trying. Food poisoning kicked off the slim-down, but fresh food and the local lifestyle have kept the weight off.

Have you ever lost weight traveling? How did you do it?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

You will automatically lose weight while traveling abroad (especially to Asia) because:

1. You'll get sick
2. The food is actually fresh
3. You’re constantly exercising whether you like it or not
4. You’ll eat less because everyone around you eats 1x per day
5. You’ll feel like a heffer next to all the tiny local girls
6. You’ll have to wear a bikini every other day
7. There IS no dairy or wheat
8. You'll hate the food
9. You'll sweat your balls off

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!