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The 5 Best Night Markets in Southeast Asia

best night markets in southeast asia

How do you find the best night markets in Southeast Asia? By looking for the perfect balance between street food and dry goods, tourists and locals, popular and off-the-beaten path.

It’s a delicate balance to strike, and some markets in SE Asia don’t quite get it right.

To me, a great night market is loud, noisy, packed with people, and filled with exciting things to see, buy, and – most importantly – taste.

Here are the five most memorable night markets I’ve visited in Southeast Asia (plus one market I recommend you skip completely!).

#1: Shilin Night Market, Taipei, Taiwan

The Shilin Night Market is Taipei’s biggest and most famous market, and for good reason. I visited several markets during my time in Taipei, and this was hands-down my favorite.

The market is packed with locals and tourists, has an endless array of food stalls and open-air restaurants, and there are even movies screening in the courtyard of a temple right in the marketplace.

I made the mistake of eating at a sit down restaurant in the market before I realized how much amazing street food there was to sample.
best night markets in southeast asiaThis was one of the first times I ate alone while traveling, and it was DEFINITELY my first experience with Asian-style seafood:

best night markets in southeast asia

It’s a good thing I was too scared to eat shrimp that was staring at me.

By the time I stepped back out into the market, I was still hungry enough to sample a smattering of Taiwanese street food and peruse the curious phallic-shaped paraphernalia that can be found throughout the market.

How to get there

Take the Red Line and get off at the Jiantan station stop. As soon as you exit the train you’ll see crowds walking across the street toward the market. Follow the crowds!

#2: Wui Lai Market (Saturday Night Walking Street), Chiang Mai, Thailand

There are many, many different markets to be explored in Chiang Mai. Some are local, some are touristy. Some are filled with tantalizing food, others are packed with knockoff designer clothing and cheap jewelry.

I spent two months in Chiang Mai and the Saturday Night Walking Market was by far my favorite. Fair warning, it’s totally touristy. But like so many things in Chiang Mai, it’s super popular and overly-touristy for a good reason: it’s awesome!

The market runs over 1km down Wui Lai street, but it also shoots off onto some side streets too. You’ll find the food stalls on both sides of the street, plus more food located in offshoot areas with patio seating and additional stalls. 

While you’re busy munching pad thai and cotton candy, you can listen to blind musicians playing the drums and buy all sorts of clothing, artwork, silverware, carvings – most of it cheap, some of it rare, all of it beautiful. 

How to get there

The market begins right across the street from the Chiang Mai Gate at the southern entrance to the old city (alternatively called the walled city, the old town, the ancient town, you get the idea).

Careful because there are four different gates that “guard” this area – make sure you’re at the southernmost gate to find this market. Also, if you walk allllll the way down to the end of the market, and the market is really busy, you might just want to take a taxi or tuk tuk back instead of fighting the crowds.

#3: Luang Prabang Night Market, Luang Prabang, Laos

Best night markets in Southeast Asia

The Luang Prabang night market is beautiful, intimate, and packed with gorgeous clothing, bags, jewelry and souvenirs. Yes, a lot of the stuff is cheap, but a lot of it is just beautiful anyway.

Maybe it’s because the vendors display there wares like artwork, all spread out on brightly colored rugs on the ground.

Maybe it’s because all of the stalls are packed in tightly, so tightly that the tops of each tent converge to create this outdoor forest.

It’s like climbing through a giant closet. You seriously have to weave your way in and out of other people to get anywhere, but for some reason that didn’t bother me during my two weeks in Luang Prabang

At first glance, you might miss the food altogether. Unlike the other best night markets in Southeast Asia, the market in Luang Prabang has a separate area for cheap, delicious street food (see how to find it below).

This covered food market has tons of cheap eats and cold Beer Lao. It’s always packed, there’s not enough seating, and the strangers packed together at picnic tables are forced to make new friends. 

I’ll be totally honest, the street food in Laos had nothing on Thailand or Vietnam, but the ambiance of this little food court more than made up for that. I met another solo female traveler while eating solo here, and we ended up doing a trek together and are still in touch to this day!

How to get there

Luang Prabang is tricky because there are a gazillion wats, two rivers, and it’s super easy to get turned around. The night market is in the “center” of town, but the trick is finding that center!

The market begins at Wat Mai, so find that on a map and get yourself there (it’s south of the Royal Palace on Sisavangvong Road).

From there, walk south along Sisavangvong Road enjoying the market. Just before you get to Kitsalat Road, which is a big intersection, you’ll see a little alley off to your right. Duck inside with your Kip and get ready to nosh!

#4: Bến Thành Market, Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam

Best night markets in Southeast Asia

Huge, famous, and smack dab in the center of the biggest tourist district in the biggest city in Vietnam, the Bến Thành Market is at the top of most HCMC must-see lists. 

It has an indoor day market, but at night the streets begin filling with vendors and outdoor pop-up restaurants.

Don’t bother going until after the sun goes down – I was there at dusk and ended up hemming and hawing during that awkward time between the closing of the day market and the opening of the night market stalls. 

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The surrounding area is massive and sprawling, with clear views of enormous skyscrapers and the giant Bitexco Financial Tower.

This market feels bigger than the Shilin Night Market in Taipei, but a bit more spread out. Food, clothing, and other goods are everywhere and nowhere. Instead of one main street, the market wraps around several blocks. 

It’s sort of difficult to get your bearings, but damn if it’s not exciting. DSC_0115

Like everywhere else in Ho Chi Minh City, just make sure you watch out for motorbikes!

How to get there

If you’re staying on or near Phạm Ngũ Lão street in District 1 (which you’ll probably be since it’s the main tourist area), you can walk along east along Phạm Ngũ Lão all the way to the market.

The north side of the street hugs a giant park that is packed with kids doing martial arts, couples taking ballroom dancing classes, and students passing shuttlecocks through the air with just their feet.

It’s well lit and I felt very safe walking through it “alone” (you’re never really alone in a city of 20 million) at night.

#5: Pai Night Market, Pai, Thailand

Pai‘s night market, like the town itself, is small when compared to the other best night markets in Southeast Asia. But what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in charm and unexpected culinary delights.

I had the best burger of my life at the Burger Queen, an indoor restaurant just off the market (Okay, it’s a few blocks away, but still worth a mention and a visit). And don’t even get me started on these RIDICULOUS pancakes:

How to get there

Go to Pai. You’ll find it.

The Night Market to Skip

I’m a huge traitor because Hoi An, Vietnam is my home away from home, but the night market on the south side of the river across from the main entrance to the Ancient Town SUCKS!

It’s dinky, barely takes up half a block, there’s hardly any street food (mostly just donuts) and the stalls are filled with cheap souvenirs. There are some cool lanterns for sale at the beginning of the market, but you can get them much cheaper from a local vendor anywhere else in town during the day.

In a city that’s so filled with rich history, amazing artisans, great cooks, and neverending tourists, why is there (basically) no night market to speak of? Maybe it’s because there are so many permanent restaurants and shops that line the banks of the river and they’re always packed, so there’s really no need for a night market.

Still, I’m a firm believer that all great Asian cities (and perhaps all cities) should have a killer night market to write home about. Hoi An may have amazing beaches, delicious food, cool history, and breathtaking scenery, but without a great night market, it can’t take it’s rightful place as the best place to visit in Southeast Asia.

Don’t skip Hoi An, but skip the market and go enjoy dinner at Cargo or have hot pot at a local noodle shop instead!

Southeast Asia or Bust

If you’re itching to hop on a plane and sample some authentic street food and night markets for yourself, first thing’s first – you have to figure out how to get there and where you’re staying!

For flights to Asia, I love Skyscanner and can almost always find a one-way ticket from the States to SE Asia for under $600 (usually much less!).

For hotels, I’ve just recently discovered Travel Ticker, which searches 100,000 cheap hotels from a single dashboard (none of those annoying pop up windows). The site’s interface is great because you can easily find your city, select your travel dates, and let their robust search engine do the work for you.

Which cities top your list for having the best night markets in Southeast Asia? Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments below!

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Rebecca Anne Nguyen is a freelance travel writer and the Founder of TheHappyPassport.com. Follow her @Happy_Passport, on Instagram, and on Medium.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

I Dream of Cyprus…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Am I mistaken in my newfound wanderlust for Cyprus?

 

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

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

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

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

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

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

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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).

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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.

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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: 

www.facebook.com/justapack

www.twitter.com/justapack

http://instagram.com/justapack1

www.pintrest.com/justapack

Where Time Stands Still: Far Western Nepal Part 2

“Travel is about the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.”

I have walked into a National Geographic IMAX documentary, into a world where time stands still.   The people of Far Western Nepal live removed from society in a peaceful, exquisite world all their own.

A beautiful girl with wide brown eyes, no older than seven, approaches with her baby sister tied to her back with a scarf.

They are mountain children, children who have grown up chasing goats along small rocky footpaths that wind down to the valley below.

Their nails are caked with dirt and their stained clothes are torn in parts, but they are happy. They are free, living in an off-the-grid universe of their own, where they rely solely upon themselves for survival.

They cultivate crops, tend to their livestock, and make tools from wood. It’s a universe where leaves turn into plates, burning sticks into flashlights, and old clothes into toys.

These children grow up with an education in nature, learning from a young age how to cultivate rice and make sugar from plants. If they want a formal education, the type held in a classroom, they have to walk three hours each way, with a grueling 2,000-meter elevation gain on the way home.

As the girls squat beside me on the dirt, we are met by another small child, waddling and giggling with one hand outstretched toward her friend and the other cradling a broken sandal.

Her hair is sticking up every which way and she has dirt smeared across her forehead, a sign of a girl being raised by the land.

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As the two small children meet on the path and grab for each other, they shriek with glee and stumble and fall, like little girls everywhere.

In the distance I see an elderly man, hunched over and leaning on his cane. He is followed by one lone goat, a runaway he is escorting back up to the herd.

There are a few more people around, two ladies collecting leaves and grass for the baskets on their heads, and an older woman squatting barefoot by an open fire as she prepares tea.

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A young boy makes his way up the other side of the road. He is no older than eight, and yells confidently at the herd of cows he is ushering home.

This world is void of car horns, bartering, or noisy shop doors slamming. The sizzling of the fire and the scurry of the chickens pecking around my feet are the only sounds I hear.

While much of our world continues to change rapidly, I have found a corner of the world where time stands still.

Where people live one hundred percent off the land.

Where beds don’t exist and money means nothing.

Where old women squat barefoot by open fires cooking rice they themselves hand picked from the field.

Where electricity is still a fare-fetched idea for the future.

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It is a simplistic lifestyle, hard at times, but it is freedom.

This post is part of a 4-part series on Far Western Nepal. For Part 1, click here

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

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. There are still parts of the world where people live completely off the land, without electricity, money, or any education to speak of.

2. To guest poster Shirine, this off-the-grid lifestyle accounts for the unparalleled happiness of the people in Far Western Nepal.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

5 Travel Apps for Staying Organized and Saving Money

I’m not really an “app person” (those people exist, right?) but for some reason when I started traveling abroad, I became addicted to travel apps.

This is probably because I actually need and use the apps I have, most of them on a daily basis.

These travel apps turn my iPhone into a compass, a receipt scanner, a translator, a currency converter, and a travel agent – and every single one of them was free.

1. GlobeConvert Free (my currency converter)

I still use this app all the time, even though I’ve been back in Vietnam for over 6 weeks and have a pretty solid handle on the conversion rate.

If a taxi driver quotes you 2 million dong for  a 3-km cab ride, you can whip out your phone and remind yourself that 2 million dong is about $100, and inform him that you’ll be using another taxi driver thankyouverymuch.

This app has just about every currency imaginable, and it’s easy to toggle back and forth between them.

2. Shoeboxed (my receipt scanner)

Here’s how my lazy butt “manages my finances” back home: I swipe my debit card, then I check my bank account online. That’s pretty much it.

The problem with traveling abroad in Asia is that the entire continent seems to operate on a cash-only basis, which means I need to get receipts, which means I need to keep those receipts organized.

I stay at a lot of different hotels, so I’m constantly collecting scraps of paper. The problem is that my backpack is already stuffed to the brim without adding an ever-growing pile of paper receipts into the mix!

Shoeboxed has been the answer to my prayers. With this travel app I simply snap a picture of the receipt in question, then toss said receipt in the recycling bin. All of the info from the receipt – including the date, amount spent, the vendor, and the location – is magically beamed to my Shoeboxed account.

Shoeboxed can even detect which tax category my receipt falls under. If I scan a receipt from a hotel I stayed at, it will be automatically labeled as a “travel and transport” write off.

This made doing my taxes so easy this year, that when I was finished, I had a big “I finished my taxes really fast!” party in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

If you like the sound of Shoeboxed, you can get a free 30-day trial by clicking here.

3. Compass by Tim O’s Studios (my – duh – compass)

This app has saved me a ton of money and has saved me from getting lost time and time again.

For some reason the Google maps app on my phone doesn’t always come through. Also, sometimes I don’t buy a local SIM card if I’m not going to be in a country for a long period of time.

In those moments – no cellular data and/or cranky Google gods – I’m flying blind and rely on this app to get me where I’m going. You may not know exactly how to find a place, but you can at least get yourself in the general vicinity.

It’s also great when you’re riding in taxis.

Make sure you know which direction you’re supposed to be headed by checking a map before you get in the cab. Then, whip out your compass app and make sure you’re heading the right way.

If your driver is happily soaring due east when the temple you want to see is most definitely to the west, you can speak up (before the meter runs up!)

4. Skyscanner (my airfare agent)

This is one of my favorite travel apps for booking airfare and checking airline prices, especially in SE Asia. Skyscanner shows you all of the available flights for your desired dates and makes it simple to filter by price.

It also shows you every airline that flies between your destinations, and lets you book airfare right from your phone.

5. Hostelworld (my accommodation agent)

Hostelworld’s app is a great research tool, even if you don’t end up booking through their site. A lot of the time, I only prebook a single night at a hotel or guest house in case I end up hating the place.

This travel app lets you see how much you can expect to pay for a private room at various hostels in various parts of the city.

Let’s say you look up hostel prices in Hanoi and see that a private room in the Old Quarter is around $12/night, while a private room in the West Lake area of town is closer to $30/night.

Armed with this information, you’re ready to negotiate a great deal on a room (and ready to laugh out loud when a $12 hotel tries to charge $30, knowing that you can walk next door and find a much better price).

Conclusion (starring Ryan Gosling)

I’ve heard some people recommend leaving the smartphone at home and buying a cheap cell once you arrive in country.

For me, having a smartphone and using awesome travel apps saves me money, keeps me safe, and even makes me feel a lot more organized than I typically do at home. I really couldn’t survive without it.

I also couldn’t survive without the hope that someday, somehow, Ryan Gosling will realize that we were destined to be together, will dump whichever gorgeous actress he’s married to at the moment, and will fly to Paris to sweep me up and start making a baker’s dozen of Little Goslings. (see how I’m in Paris in this fantasy? That’s what separates the dreamers from the deranged. I might even add a pet monkey into the scenario if the mood strikes.)

Yep, just struck.

travel-apps-2

Which travel apps can’t you live without?

YE OLDE DISCLAIMER: If you sign up for a Shoeboxed account (which you should totally do, btw), the good people at Shoeboxed just might find it in their hearts to throw some scratch my way. But don’t get the wrong idea – I am a loyal Shoeboxed customer and would never recommend the service to you if it sucked. It sucketh not! Go get your free trial already!

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

I can't live without....

1. GlobeConvert Free for currency conversion

2. Shoeboxed for receipt scanning

3. Compass by Tim O for my compass

4. Skyscanner for checking and booking airfare

5. Hostelworld for researching accommodation prices

6. Eating great spring rolls with Ryan Gosling in Paris while my pet monkey sits on my shoulder and Ryan and I discuss whether or not we'll have to get rid of the monkey when the twins are born.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

How I Live Abroad on $662 a Month

Um. That's the view from my room.

Right now I live abroad on a tiny island off the coast of Northern Vietnam, and my monthly expenditures total about $662 – for everything.

After spending 4 months straight traveling nonstop throughout Asia (while working full time, mind you!) I needed to recover, recoup, and stay put for a hot second.

That also meant I needed to choose a place where it was easy to get a visa, easy to find affordable accommodation, and easy to save money for future travels later this year.

Vietnam was the 3rd country I’d visited in as many months, but by the time I crossed over into Cambodia from Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta region, I was not ready to leave.

The country was so vast, so varied, so rich and diverse that one month wasn’t enough to begin to scratch the surface of all Vietnam had to offer.

A room with a view

A room with a view

My original plan had been to move on to Thailand as soon as my Cambodian visa expired, but as my days in Siem Reap came to a close, I felt called back to Cat Ba.

Cat Ba is an island off the Northern Coast of Vietnam. Its craggly limestone cliffs are perhaps the most photographed natural phenomenon in the world – I’m actually looking at them out my window as I write this sentence.

Cat Ba Town is a small fishing village on the southern side of the island. In the past decade, it’s been built up ferociously to cater to hordes of Vietnamese tourists who descend upon the island in massive droves each year beginning in June.

I mean, it's just stupid.

I mean, it’s just stupid.

But the town itself is anything but touristy. There’s not much to do here, besides take a boat tour of Ha Long Bay, rent a motorbike and explore the surrounding hillsides, or hike up to Canon Fort for breathtaking views of the East China Sea (sorry to my Vietnamese friends – the East Sea.)

Saigon was more exciting, Da Nang had better beaches, and Hoi An positively dripped with charm. Besides, there were so many places I hadn’t yet been to in Vietnam – Da Lat, Sa Pa, Hue, Nah Trang…the list of “don’t miss” places I had missed the first time around was extensive.

So why return to a place I’d already been?

A fisherman rowing his boat with his feet

A fisherman rowing his boat with his feet

Because in addition to being beautiful in a dark, romantic, even tragic kind of way, and in addition to great weather, and in addition to being home to some of the friendliest locals I’ve encountered on my journey, Cat Ba is friggin’ CHEAP.

And this is coming from someone who just spent a month in Nepal, one of the cheapest countries in the world for budget travelers.

I don’t consider myself a backpacker, and I don’t go out of my way to spend as little as possible. I work as I travel, so I’m not on a fixed income and I can always make more money if need be.

That's me, out on the boat.

That’s me, out on the boat.

I get private rooms instead of dorm rooms, I mix street food with restaurant fare, and if I can afford it and it’ll save me time, I’m quick to opt for a plane over a bus ticket.

But Cat Ba is so cheap, you automatically become a budget traveler without even trying.

The first time I stayed here, I rented a room at the Alibaba Hotel, which is on the main road facing the harbor. My high-rise, ocean-view room with en suite bathroom and two double beds cost $5/night.

I wondered if I could get it for cheaper. Not because I can’t afford $5/night, but because ever since I met some professional budget travelers in Nepal, I realized what a fun game budget travel can be.

My friends would one up each other constantly, asking “How much is your guest house?” And then, “Oh yeah? Well my guest house is only $2 a night, and I have hot water!

Kayaking, anyone?

Kayaking, anyone?

I knew I planned to stay in Cat Ba long-term (which, in travel terms, is anything longer than a few days’ stay). I wrote to the guest house owner and asked what he could do for me.

Here was his offer:

$3/night during the month of April

$9/night during the “high season” of May and June

He actually apologized to me for tripling the price, explaining that it was very busy during that time, and that “regular” customers would be charged $40/night.

Wowza!

That makes my monthly rent average out to $216/month.

Did I mention there are 3 beaches within walking distance of my hotel?

Did I mention there are 3 beaches within walking distance of my hotel?

As if that weren’t awesome enough, everything else on Cat Ba is cheap too.

I spend about $12/day on food and drink, and could easily spend less if I chose cheaper restaurants. (alas, I’m a sucker for ambiance. And dynamite spring rolls.)

That brings us to $588 for rent and food. So what other expenses do I have?

  • I pay nothing for utilities since those are included in the hotel room (hot water, electricity, WiFi, etc.).
  • I pay nothing for transportation because the town is small enough to walk anywhere, or I can hop on a motortaxi for a few thousand dong.
  • I spend about $10/month on things like shampoo, soap, and other toiletries.
  • I spend 100,000 dong (about $5) per month on a prepaid data plan for my cell phone. This comes in handy when the power goes out and there is no WiFi.
  • Visa fees: I paid $130 for a three-month Vietnam visa, which averages out to about $43/month.
  • I spend roughly $6/month on laundry

Grand Total: $662

i-live-abroad-6

Now, if I had no debt or other bills to pay back home, I could truly live a backpacker lifestyle in Cat Ba.

Unfortunately I have a big fat student loan payment that’s due each month, plus credit card debt and other expenses related to running this site.

But only having to spend $662 to live allows me to focus on writing my book and running this website.

If you’re looking to pay off debt while living a great quality of life in one of the most beautiful places on earth, I can’t recommend Cat Ba enough.

But if you do decide to come here, don’t tell anyone else, ok? I don’t want this place to lose its small town charm and become another Luang Prabang.

 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. When looking to live cheap abroad, it's all about location.

2. There are cheap places just about everywhere - Vietnam isn't considered the cheapest place in SE Asia by any means, and yet it's been even cheaper to stay here than in Nepal.

3. Make friends with locals! Many people will give you a discount if you return to their hotel a second time, or if you're staying long-term.

4. Places that are slightly less touristy and difficult to get to will always be cheaper (but not less beautiful!)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Guest Post: Hitchhiking to Happiness

“When I was 5 years old, my mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, I told them they didn’t understand life.”

I run beside a grandpa who’s pedaling his bicycle with a young boy on the back, and hold up my sign: an old piece of cardboard with the name of the town I am trying to get to written hastily in black sharpie.

“Por favor,” I plead jokingly, causing both the young boy and his grandpa to chuckle and wave. There is no way they could pedal me and my backpack 300km to my next destination, but hey, it was worth a try.

I see a few cars approach in the distance and get ready for my next shot. I run alongside them as they slow down to enter the small Argentinian village, and yell “Salta, Salta, Saltaaaaaaaa,” the name of the town I am trying to reach. I take care to yell in the same loud and catchy voice Latin American street vendors use.

The passengers all laugh and wave before signaling to me that they are turning left, not right towards Salta, at the intersection just up ahead. I have been running, dancing, and serenading every passing car for the past hour, but unfortunately my efforts have been fruitless; everyone is turning left.

As I retreat to the sidewalk to consult with my hitchhiking posse, two French boys who are also journeying to Salta, the couple selling street food to my right approaches me to thank me for the entertainment I have apparently been providing them for the past hour – them, and the entire row of street vendors beside them.

They hand me a basket full of fried donuts along with a beverage – some sort of sweet milky concoction to both drink and dip the donuts in.

They talk with me  awhile before heading back to work, and I’m able to put my Spanish to good use as I explain why I have been jumping up and down with a sign.

They are a fun young couple, so when they make me promise to give up and join them for the evening if I can’t find a ride within an hour, I readily agree.

As I run and dance alongside the dwindling number of cars for a while longer, I know it’s more for fun than anything else. I end up in the couple’s small, open road-side hut along with the French boys, and we enjoy eating, talking and laughing until late. I finally accept their invitation to set up my hammock in their hut for the night.

You might have to pay for gas. And the gas station might look like this.

You might have to pay for gas. And the gas station might look like this.

2 years later…

Though I didn’t find a ride that evening, the feeling of jumping and dancing with my sign in the middle of the highway and running alongside the passing cars has stayed with me even now, two years later.

It is the feeling of pure happiness, of absolute bliss.

Though hitchhiking can certainly be frustrating at times (nothing like standing on the side of a busy highway for hours without a single car slowing down), it is an amazing way to experience a country, especially in a place like Argentina where it is considered the norm.

I met countless other hitchhikers, mostly Argentinian students on their summer holiday, and quickly grew to view hitchhiking as my favorite form of transportation.

It is cheap, usually free in most countries, and it’s a great way for travelers to connect with locals and explore non-touristic regions of the country.

Hitchhiking also provides a great opportunity to practice (or learn) the language, eat the local food, and encounter adventures and opportunities you would never have dreamed of while sitting idly on the bus.

So weigh your options carefully next time you are about to hop on that bus –  instead, you might want to stick your thumb out and see where the adventure leads you.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Hitchhiking is not necessary the most dangerous thing in the world for a solo female traveler.

2. If you're going to hitchhike, make sure a totally normal thing to do in that country (and in many countries, it is!)

3. Keep in mind you might be expected to pay your way, pay for gas, etc.

4. Hitchhiking is an amazing, eye-opening way to see a country, explore areas most tourists never see, meet locals, and have the kind of Eat, Pray, Love-experience you've been searching for.

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!