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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?

 

 

Don’t F*$! With Mother India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May all beings be free of suffering and fear.

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

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

Don’t Fuck with the MOTHER.

Elsa Bella

 

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

 

Currywurst and Sportscars: Endless Summer in Dresden, Germany

Would you jump into a car with a stranger in Dresden Germany without knowing anything about him? I bet you might do just that after reading this story.

Back in the summer of 2011 I decided to go travelling in Europe for five weeks. To be honest, I was completely broke at the time thanks to my previous travels, but the travelbug wouldn’t let me be.

“So low budget it is”, I thought to myself. I packed my bags and headed to Germany.

My Slovenian friend decided to join me for two weeks, and with our limited budgets we wanted to try Couchsurfing for the first time ever.

This was a choice dictated not only by shortage of capital but also by the desire to meet new people and find a whole new way of travelling.

To continue with the new policy of hanging out with strangers, we decided to use carpooling instead of trains and buses. There is a great website in Germany (Mitfahrgelegenheit.de) where you can find rides from people who are looking to share the fuel expenses. People are very well organised in Germany when it comes to most things, ridesharing included.

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So basically we decided to jump into cars with strangers and spend our nights with people we didn’t know in their houses.

Needless to say this plan was exactly what all girls are always warned not to do!

After staying in Berlin and Leipzig, we decided to go to Dresden Germany. The only problem was we hadn’t been able to find accommodation in Dresden – we were also about to get on the road and wouldn’t be able to use the internet on the way there.

We did not want to relapse into hostel accommodation, so we posted an emergency message on Couchsurfing saying that we were looking for a place to stay for two nights in Dresden and that we were already on our way. We took care to include our phone number on the post.

We arrived in Dresden with no place to stay, and decided to enjoy some Currywurst at the Dresden train station. All of a sudden my phone beeped, practically making me choke on my not-so-great wurst!

We got a message from an unknown party saying they’d pick us up from the station.

We didn’t have internet access to check out who was texting us, so it was going to be totally blind Couchsurfing.

Were we scared to see who would show up? Absolutely we were! We had no pictures, no references, and still we were about to spend two nights at this person’s house.

Picture this: two twenty-something girls standing by the train station in Germany staring at every car anxiously.

Then suddenly, an expensive-looking, shiny black Batmobile-style sportscar pulls over right next to us. We look at each other and then we look at the car. The door opens and out comes a gorgeous twenty-something German guy with a big smile on his face.

“Hi girls, did you send a message on Couchsurfing?”

“Well yes, we certainly did – if you’re here to pick us up with that face and that car!”

Okay, so I didn’t say that out loud, but I did say it in my head. I shared another look with my friend, the kind of look two single girls share when they see a handsome guy.

If he’s handsome he can’t be a murderer, right? To the Batmobile!

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We got into the car and started chatting with our new host. Within two minutes all three of us were laughing as if we’d known each other for years.

Soon we arrived at his place and my jaw dropped. There was a big black iron gate in front of us with a huge house and a beautiful yard behind it. Yes, a gate! Who has a gate? Who is this guy? Bruce Wayne?

The gate opened slowly and I started to get suspicious. How could this young guy have a car like that and a place like that?

As it turned out, he couldn’t. The house and the car belonged to his parents. We found out we were about to stay with his family. This information shouldn’t have been a total surprise considering the car and the gate, but still I was a bit nervous to hang out with a strange German family.

We got into the house and our host led us upstairs to a private room filled with fresh linens, towels, the whole nine yards. I couldn’t help wondering how his parents felt about hosting random foreign girls at their pretty house.

We got a tour of the house and on the tour we ran into his parents. We found out they were both doctors and the other building on the yard was their private clinic. For a moment I felt out of place. I’m not very comfortable in very fancy places. If I have to choose between an expensive, top-notch club or a scrubby corner pub, you’ll definitely find me at the pub.

But as we talked with his parents we noticed what wonderful, welcoming people they were. They didn’t speak much English but luckily we knew some German and they knew some English, so it all worked out. At least I like to think they could understand my constant grinning, thumbs up signs, and frequent bursts of  “Kuchenschemckt gut!” (supposedly: cake tastes good). Maybe praising their desserts with my mouth full of cake wasn’t the classiest move.

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In the morning we were invited to join the family for breakfast. Two low budget travellers in dirty shirts, sitting at a really fancy breakfast table with a German family. It was a bit absurd.

The table was set beautifully with white porcelain dishes. On the table was everything you could imagine – from fresh fruit to piping hot bread just out of the oven. The family was so warm and welcoming that I didn’t feel out of place despite the fancy settings.

The weather during our stay in Dresden was just dreadful.

It was windy, rainy, cold and foggy and there were sharks flying in the air. Okay not sharks, but it was bad!

But thanks to  our host, the lack of sunshine wasn’t too bad to deal with. He took as around the town in the Batmobile and the three of us just laughed and laughed until my stomach hurt! There’s no need to do situps when you’re laughing nonstop for days on end!

We visited the Königstein Fortress (one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe), and the Zwinger Palace among other Dresden sights.

Those two days in rainy Dresden ended up being so special that I’ll never forget them: the laughter, the hospitality, my poor attempt to speak German with the parents, seeing amazing sights, and the piece de resistance – peeing in the middle of a park (well, in the bushes) because we couldn’t find a toilet, and asking Bruce Wayne to yell out if he saw anyone coming… I bet he won’t forget us either!

dresden-germany (4)This post was written by Sanna Tolmunen, a Finnish communications professional and travel blogger currently doing an internship in Hancock, Michigan. Travelling, films and good stories in all forms are Sanna’s great passions in life. In a way it could be said that good stories are her one passion, as to her, life is a story. This is exactly why she hopes to share great stories around the world through her writing and her blog, Adventures Of A Finn.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Sunset at the World Peace Pagoda

I have no idea how to hike to the World Peace Pagoda, AKA “the stupa,” so I arrange for a taxi to take me there and bring me back. Sunset is supposed to be the best time to go.

The driver picks me up at the Harvest Moon at 4:30pm in another tiny clown car. I have to duck my head so as not to hit it on the roof of the cab, but my efforts are in vain – we plummet through the city, and I’m jostled and tossed in the backseat like a sack of potatoes, my head thumping upon the car roof every few seconds.

I end up pressing my hands against the ceiling so I won’t be completely brain-damaged by the time I arrive. I am, quite literally, raising the roof.

We ascend a steep hill, and the road changes from kind of paved, kind of not, to most decidedly not. It twists and winds ever upwards, and the cab driver slows to a crawl in order to make the sharp turns without sending us flying out over the city below.

I can see brush and tangled grass and rock. A young couple walks together through the dust, their motorbikes parked alongside the road like a pair of waiting steeds.

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Other taxi cabs descend as we climb, and we’re forced to dance an awkward do-see-do in order to get around each other. Higher and higher we go, the ascent is alarmingly swift, until the city below begins to reveal its true size – this is not a tiny town at all! It’s only the tourist area that’s tiny.

The rest of Pokhara scrambles toward the lake, choking, like a crowd of frightened movie goers bottlenecking for the exit door.  The lake sparkles far below like an elixir of life – it is the sun, and every crumbling building in the city stretches toward it like a starving palm.

The taxi, now sweating and sputtering with the effort of climbing a mountain not meant to be climbed by a tiny clown car, lurches itself onto a parking lot plateau like an exhausted trekker.

He parks, I get out, and manage to communicate that I expect he’ll be waiting for me when I return. I don’t know how long I have here, but the sun is threatening to walk if I don’t pay him the attention he deserves, and soon.

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Although we’ve spent the better part of 20 minutes driving a winding path up the mountain, the car tilted at a 45 degree angle the entire time, there are still more steps to climb in order to reach the stupa itself.

Several houses, shops and restaurants have sprung up around the steps leading to the World Peace Pagoda, and I can see the homes of mountain rice farmers resting in contradiction along adjacent peaks – small shacks with thatched roofs, the tiniest ramshackle abodes set atop the entire world. Humble peasants made rich with a king’s view.

My breath escapes me in fits and spurts, and I can’t keep myself steady. By now I’m used to this game, my lungs playing chicken with the paper thin mountain air.

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I emerge atop a flat, wide green with a single, straight path leading to the stupa.

A great, white monument with a rounded dome, the World Peace Pagoda was only built in 1973. The wide yard split by a single, straight path conjures images of the Taj Mahal. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go except straight toward the monument steps, which pull the viewer in as if they were magnetic.

But I’ve come so far to finally be here, to finally reach the top. It’s too much to just march straight up and look the stupa in the eye. I wander around the grounds, reading plaques set next various statues and relics. The sun continues to pout, refusing to stick around longer just for me.

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I want to eat the view. The entire Annapurna range stretches before me, more massive and higher than my mind can possibly conceive of.

It’s the first time in my life when I truly can’t believe my eyes. The mountains are so high, so white, that if you looked quickly you’d mistake them for clouds. And yet the peaks float above the clouds, which hang around their necks like fuzzy clown collars.

I am overwhelmed in the most wonderful way. It feels like meeting a celebrity who turns out to be super down to earth and who has taken it upon himself to fall in love with you. It’s like Maid in Manhattan, or one of those princess movies where Anne Hathaway turns out to be royalty.

It’s too much, it’s too good, and I wonder for a second if all of my relationships have failed because of too much love. Maybe I was too good to him, too patient, too kind, too understanding. Maybe we simply can’t handle too much of a good thing, or don’t think we deserve it.

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Maybe that’s why everyone around me is rushing straight for the stupa steps as if the view was a mirage, as if they weren’t tackled by the 360-degree painting that’s threatening to turn tears of anger into tears of joy.

I stroll from one side of the yard to the other – there truly is a panoramic view of the city, the lake, the mountains, the never-ending fields of green and brown that stretch across the earth in undisturbed patchwork.

I see that the lake is not in fact round, as I’d imagined, but that it curves quite sharply to the west, creating a bottleneck where boats cannot pass through.

I see pinks and oranges flickering on the white mountain peaks as the sun gives me one final chance to drink in its blessed light.

The stupa itself is unimpressive; modern and white-washed with the occasional golden relic presented upon a shelf that has been carved out of the building’s foundation. I’m somewhat incensed that one can’t “go inside” the stupa – it’s really just a monument, not a building that can be entered.

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Shoes must be removed before ascending the steps, and I grin remembering the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when Jamal helps himself to fine footwear outside the Taj Mahal.

A man begins speaking to me in rapid Nepali, forcing me back down the stairs. At first I think I’ve missed a ticket booth somewhere and am supposed to have paid, but I quickly realize that I’ve climbed too many stairs.

There are two levels to the stupa, and after some hand-gesturing I realize that I must circle the lower level first before I can ascend the final staircase and circle the upper level. I must walk clockwise around the stupa as I go.

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Women kneel and pray at each golden incarnation of the Buddha. My thoughts turn to the strangeness of religion in Nepal – I thought it would be filled with Tibetan Buddhist monks, yet everywhere I look are altars to Ganesh and Shiva. Hari and Shova are Hindu.

The people who “look Indian” seem to be Hindu, while the people who “look Tibetan” or Chinese seem to be Buddhist. It feels like a Hindu country to me, so I find it ironic that the defining monument of Pokhara itself is a Buddhist stupa, and that Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha himself.

I beg the sun for a few more minutes but he’s stubborn, slipping behind the horizon and leaving nothing but streaks of fading twilight.

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My cab driver is waiting for me as promised, and we begin the treacherous descent back to town.

I brace my hands against the car ceiling to shield my head from further blows, and relish one of my favorite feelings in the world: I see the evening stretching out before me in all its glory.

Anything could happen. There will be drinking, and good food, and romance, and laughter.

Though it doesn’t feel like it, it’s the Christmas season and my heart is warmed to imagine the twinkling lights of home. Each fire burning in the town below becomes a lantern lit upon my family’s hearth; each street lamp the bulb upon a fragrant wreath of pine.

I’m in a festive mood, the sheer awesomeness of the mountain range infusing me with energy and anticipation.

I have been in Nepal for less than a week, 6 days in which God might as well have recreated the world.

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I decide that tonight will be my Christmas miracle. I feel Mariah Carey carols swirling around inside me, I am lighting a candle at 13 years old and praying for the boy I love, I am 17 and being touched for the first time in the backseat of a car as moonlight streams in through the windows, I am 7 years old and studying myself in the mirror and deciding that I like what I see.

Tonight, I give myself permission to fall in love without reason, without cause, without fear.

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

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. You can take a taxi up to the World Peace Pagoda, or you can hike.

2. If you take a taxi, you should be able to get there and back for less than 1000 rupees ($10). Make sure the driver waits for you while you explore the grounds.

3. If you hike, you'll have to take a boat across the lake to the trail head. It's a climb to 1000 meters and should take about an hour.

4. There are plenty of shops and restaurants at the top if you want to have lunch on top of the world.

5. The stupa must be entered by first walking clockwise around the first level platform. After you've circled once you may then ascend to the second level platform and complete another clockwise circle.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

My Scariest Moment as a Solo Female Traveler

“Destined to be an old women with no regrets.”

I hear the sound of an engine cut out and see a motorcycle parked up above. They are back.

Panic fills me as I grab a few rocks from the ground. I see him approach. He is staring at me intently without any hint of emotion, the exact same way all Indian men look at me.

I feel naked, and his greedy eyes undress me as he gets closer. I quickly run up the small hill I had climbed down moments before for a pee break.

I say “go away,” again, as fiercely as I can, and hold up my rock. He doesn’t come closer, but he doesn’t back away either.

I reach the top of the hill and see his friend, who has parked his motorcycle by my bike. He has that same nasty cold-blooded look in his eyes. I feel my insides shrivel as anger rises up inside of me.

There is no doubt in my mind about what they are planning to do to me, and I have never been so afraid in my life.

India's children: a reminder of Heaven

India’s children: a reminder of Heaven

I grab my bike and quickly pedal away, unsure of how to proceed. They pass by me, staring as they always do. I hope they are gone for good this time –  I have been playing this scary game of cat and mouse for forty minutes now.

I’m at least twenty kilometers out from the main highway, trapped on a small road I thought would be a shortcut. “A shortcut to hell,” I think to myself now.

And that’s when I see them, six of them. They have multiplied. The two men who have been following me have brought reinforcements. Their three motorcycles are parked by the side of the road and they are all waiting for me to pass.

I stop. There are too many of them, they can easily overpower me. One starts to approach me and my heart beats faster inside my chest, I am trapped.

I beg the next couple who pass on a motorbike to stop.

“Help, help me, please!”

I am lucky, there is a women on board, a rare sight in this part of India. And she speaks enough English to translate. I quickly explain my situation as the pack approaches. She tells them to go away but it is no use, they look at her with that same slimy look they give to all women. We aren’t respected here, we are second-class, unworthy. Disposable. I have never felt so angry.

The Sikh people were Shirine's saviors time and time again

The Sikh people were Shirine’s saviors time and time again

She flags down the next older gentleman who passes. Like her driver, he wears a turban that shows he is Sikh, a gentle group of people I have come to trust and respect throughout my stay in India. She explains to him that I need an escort and he readily agrees. My followers are dispersing now, they realize their fun has been ruined.

I follow the man for a few kilometers before he speaks. He tries to ask me in Hindi where I am going, and I struggle to explain that I don’t know. It’s 5pm and almost dark out. I have never been caught this late without a place to sleep, and given my last hour of hell, there is no way I’m sleeping in my tent tonight.

He signals me to follow him to his house and I immediately feel relieved, I have a place to stay. He is kind and gentle, the type of man any child would be proud to call their grandfather. I arrive at his house were his wife, daughter, and granddaughter are surprised yet elated to greet me. I am saved, and within the next few days, I will find heaven in hell.

They serve me a cup of steaming chia before I even have time to change out of my dusty cycling clothes. A neighborhood child peers over the fence, shy yet curious about this newly arrived Westerner. The family later tells me that they have never spoken to a white girl before.

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No one speaks English, but as always, I get by with a few words of Hindi and a lot of charades. They invite me to eat dinner, a meal of delicious Indian curry and rice, before taking me next door to meet the neighbors. I am proudly shown off to everyone in this small village, and pretty soon, they have all demanded that I spend at least one night with each of the different families.

As I sit on the ground next to the ladies they talk and laugh, and though I love seeing their smiling faces, it is hard not being able to understand what they say. I get up and find the children instead as language is never a barrier with them.

They warm up to me quickly and within minutes I have one on my back, and a child grabbing each hand. They show me their rice fields and their cows, and I stop to play with the smallest calf. He is soft, only a few weeks old, and nuzzles me to pet him. I’m in heaven, surrounded by playful children, laughing women, and a cuddly cow.

My anger slowly fades as I spend the next few days enjoying this family’s hospitality. I take a motorbike ride through the rice fields and taste my first stalk of fresh sugar cane. I spend hours with the children, and find myself happily in charge of the one year old granddaughter.

I sleep every night with the grandma, an arrangement I am more than used to now after staying with countless families as a solo female traveler.

The neighbors come over and I am ordered (nicely) to visit them daily. They are all incredibly hospitable, handing me cups of hot tea and different traditional dishes at each and every visit. It is overwhelming at times, the sheer hospitality and kindness, but every minute of overwhelm is worth bearing because of the amazing experiences I come away with.

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After four days I decide it is time for me to continue on my way. They beg me to stay, but eventually relent and let me ride out with two of the men as an escort.

The girls hand me beautiful earrings and necklaces as I leave, and though I am trying to thank them, they end up thanking me. They have relatives forty kilometers away and have already arranged for me to stay with them for the following few nights.

I arrive at my next homestay to find a beautiful sixteen year old girl who speaks nearly perfect English because she attends a private English boarding school. She shows me around, tells me about her secret boyfriend, and immediately makes me feel like family.

I cook with the oldest sister, go out with the teenager and her friends, and visit the Sikh temple with the whole family. Once again I am treated like a queen. I stay a few more days before eventually heading out. They are worried about me so I promise to find a pay phone and call them that night. When I do, they tell me they miss me and that I should give up my bike journey to live with them. I have never felt so welcomed in any other country.

India. It’s heaven and it’s hell, and you are sure to experience both journeying as a solo female traveler.

You will see the savage brutality of inequality and you will learn to stand proud as a woman. You are sure to be taken in as a daughter, friend, and sister by countless amazing families.

I have stayed in a slum, with multiple farming families in the villages, and with wealthy families in different cities. In each and every home I was treated like a queen. Go out and experience it for yourself. It’s worth going through hell to get to heaven.

Shirine Taylor is a 20-year old solo female traveler cycling around the world, and a regular contributor to The Happy Passport.

This post originally appeared on Shirine’s blog, awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Shirine was almost the victim of a gang rape in India.

2. She was rescued by a Sikh family who took her in and protected her.

3. India is both heaven and hell for solo female travelers.

4. Even though she endured one of the scariest moments of her life, Shirine wouldn't trade her time in India for anything and still recommends other solo female travelers visit India.

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.

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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

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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

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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!