K10 Travels By the Numbers!

The end, the end.

After two months, I’m leaving Asia.

Looking at the bigger picture… after 9 months, I’m finally heading back to the U.S. with no plans to leave it.

I spent my multiple hours in airports over the past few days reading through all of my blogs. What struck me most is what I said very early on about why I was writing:

And so, I journey forward. The fear remains, and will remain for quite a while, I suspect. But this is why I write. I need to show myself, when I reach the end of the road, that I may have quivered as I initially stepped foot, but I made it to the end and survived.

Some of my travels:

England…
Scotland…
Slovenia…. and sadly none of Ireland because I was a terrible tourist there.

Let’s delve into some statistics, shall we?

Thailand…

Number of countries in which I stepped foot since August: 10 (United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Slovenia, Thailand, Laos, China, Cambodia, Vietnam.)

Number of communist countries: 3 (Laos, China, Vietnam) of the 5 that exist (including North Korea and Cuba). As a McCarthy, I don’t know how to feel about that.

Number of beds: 25 (including the times I crashed with someone in the city where I was already living, like the little tramp I am)

Number of plane rides: 24 (Sorry, Earth. I’ll make it up to you…)

Laos…


Number of illnesses/injuries: For an 19th-century disease prone hypochondriac, surprisingly few. I don’t recall getting sick in England or at home, minus a few normal-for-me ear things and some colds. My biggest injury was by far the time I scraped up my leg after crashing a motorbike, which has left me with a pretty awesome scar on half of my calf. This obviously means that the second I’m home, my dengue fever and/or malaria kicks in. I’ve already decided to go to the Naval Hospital if that happens, just to give the lads some practice dealing with a tropical disease. I’m a giver!

Number of times I cried: Let’s just say a few. And a few too many over Skype, including to the Me in Ireland after I had known her for only about three months (what a saint, huh?), to Katie & Amanda after they did something normal and I cried over the normalcy; when I learned the greatest kitty in the world had to go to the big litter box in the sky.

China…



Number of rainy days in England: A gazillion

Number of rainy days in Asia: Maybe 10 minutes total over the two months. When they say “dry season,” that’s apparently not an exaggeration…

Number of guests/travel partners: 7

Number of times I blew out the fuses or lost electricity in the last three months: 6 (In Virginia, China, Laos, Vietnam [10 minutes before I had a Skype interview – THAT was fun] and twice in Cambodia. Two times were my fault. I’ll let you decide which two.)

Amount of DEET I applied in the last two weeks to ward off dengue fever and malaria: Two bottles. I wish I were kidding. That can’t be healthy. I also read that apparently DEET leaves your system through urine, so that’s interesting. And weird to think about.

Cambodia…

Favorite place (in Asia): That’s gonna go to China, by the pure fact that I got to actually do normal people things there like go to trivia night and I didn’t have to worry about how to navigate the city or speak the language. Plus I stayed in plush accommodations. SO I’m taking it out of the running, and putting in a vote for…. Chiang Mai, for the balance of things that I did (some touristy things, like playing with elephants and taking a bike tour; some relaxing things, like hanging by the pool and eating a bunch of cheese; and some “local” things, like going to a great yoga studio a couple of times). Phnom Penh, for how much it surprised me (crazy city with a coffeeshop on every corner and a delicious French restaurant down the street from our hotel – we definitely went back twice). Chau Doc, purely for the luxury hotel. Saigon, for being so Saigon-y. Crazy and loud and vibrant.

Where Do I Want To Return? Besides London, as always? SAIGON! Vietnam!!! I feel sufficiently traveled in the other countries, although I would love to go back to Thailand with an SO and lounge around the islands, but there’s so much more of Vietnam I want to see. Saigon is an awesome city, and one day I would love to come back and take a couple of weeks to finish my plan and travel up to Hanoi. Plus, I first had this drink called sugarcane juice there, that is literally just juice from a sugarcane. That’s it. It puts sweet tea to shame.

Vietnam…

Most important thing I learned: That faking it until you make it actually works. A secret part of me thought I wouldn’t be able to handle working short-term in London. A secret part of me thought I wouldn’t be able to travel solo through Asia. But I jumped right in anyway, faking my confidence and my abilities. Somewhere along the way I realized I wasn’t faking it anymore; I was doing it. And so that is the biggest lesson from K10 Travels I want you to take with you, gentle reader: never try, never know.



From hiking Arthur’s Seat in Scotland to bathing with elephants in Thailand, it’s been a wild year. Thanks for joining me! 🙂
 



 

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Snap judgements on Vietnam

It hardly seems real, but I’ve landed in the last country on the K10 travels – Vietnam. I’m leaving a bit earlier, for a number of reasons, so I won’t be going from Saigon to Hanoi as previously planned; instead, my dad and I started south of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta, and hit up HCMC right before heading back. (AAAAH!!!). It’s going to tie with Laos for the country I’m spending the least time in – just about 3.5-4 days, depending on how you count it. (Laos was about 3.5 days, Cambodia was about 11.5 days, China was 8 days, and Thailand got a month and a couple of random days, that saucy minx.)

Since I have so little time here let’s play a game of Judge a Book by its Cover! 
The people in Vietnam: SO NICE and REALLY family-focused. (At least in the south.)
Far and away the friendliest people on my trip have been in southern Vietnam. The first day my dad and I walked down the street of Chau Doc (a tiny town that was our stopping point between Phnom Penh and Saigon), people kept waving at us and shouting HELLO! My suspicious mind assumed they were just touts trying to get us into a boat/motortaxi/taxi – and sometimes they were – but most of the time it was just friendly people and adorable children saying hello. It might have something to do with the fact that as Westerners, we were a bit of an oddity in this small town. Either way, it was lovely.

They are also very, very family-focused. Every time we talked with a Vietnamese person, they would ask almost immediately if I have siblings, why Dad’s wife wasn’t there, etc. We did an awesome street food tour and the lovely owner of one of the carts was very interested in setting me up with her son. Apparently she thought I was very beautiful and that I have the ideal look: very white skin (CHECK!), tall, and a narrow nose. Oh, go on then.

(Side note re: touts: we would also get stopped in the park by people asking if we wanted a shoe shine. We would just look down at our sneakers and go “…what are you going to shine?!” Total mystery.)

My future mother-in-law

Motorbikes are the way to travel
As mentioned, we did a street food tour where we zoomed around on the back of motorbikes through the crazy streets of Saigon. Words can’t describe how crazy traffic is in Saigon. Waiting for a break in the scooters is a losing game; instead, you just walked slowly and steadily across and trust the motorbikes will go around you. (This does NOT work for buses. They will NOT go around you.) Riding around on the back of one was the perfect way to see the city.


Life is lived on the river

At least in the Mekong Delta. We took a speedboat from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc (definitely the way to travel), and as we approached Chau Doc around dinnertime the river was peppered with people cooking over fires, bathing, or just enjoying a twilight swim.

Luxury hotels are truly luxurious
For our stay in Chau Doc, Dad booked a luxury resort (luxury for Vietnam; the prices were what you would pay for a Hampton Inn in the States. Hampton Inns do have great bedding, though. It is indeed like sleeping on a cloud.). This meant we didn’t do much else except soak in the luxury. I spent a full afternoon languishing by the pool that overlooked the river, having food and drinks brought out to me. It’s the kind of place that hires a musician to play in the lobby to set the mood. It has its own pier. I could get used to this.

Vietnam is a-okay with me! 
You guys, I’ve really enjoyed Vietnam. It might be the fact that it is at the very end of my trip and so I’m excited to be going back and looking at travel nostalgically; it might be that the food is great and I spent half my time in this country staying in a luxury hotel; it might be that one time when Dad and I went to cross the street, a police officer immediately hurried over to escort us across and at the end said, “Welcome to Vietnam!” It’s fair to say I am going to try to make my way back here, friends.

I’m ready for the routine

Pretty much as soon as I got to Southeast Asia (and even a little bit before) I dove into the process of applying for jobs, interviewing, etc. While this makes sense, what doesn’t is how excited this made me. Some times, it would be the highlight of my day – planning for what happens next. Here I am, traveling in this amazing region of the world, and I’m eagerly anticipating being able to get back to work. What gives?

And then I realized that since May 2012, my life has been completely untethered. Ever since I moved the tassel from one side to the other after graduating grad school, I’ve been bouncing around from place to place. I spent a month at home; a month in Boston; four months in England; a month again at home; and now I’m in Southeast Asia, hitting up five countries before heading back to the U.S. Some people revel in that and the ability to go wherever the wind may take them. But frankly, it just makes me exhausted. Once I hit the sixth week, I started to gaze at my backpack and say softly, “I hate you.” I do not envy turtles, friends.

Don’t get me wrong – I love traveling, seeing new things, eating amazing foods, and basically fulfilling one of my long-held dreams. But I also could not be more excited about finally having an answer to someone asking, “So, where do you live? What do you do?” I want to be able to unpack my kitchen stuff and my beautiful mixer. I want to own furniture! I want to do all the stupid things you do when you have a fixed life, like work out more and join book clubs and go to happy hours. I want to establish friends and relationships in a place that I won’t be leaving in a couple of weeks/months.

So many people, especially long-term travelers and travel bloggers, worked long and hard in order to shed themselves of the so-called American dream. They saw their cubicle jobs and their mortgages as things that were holding them back, rather than fulfilling any actual desire in life. And so they planned massive round-the-world trips, sold their furniture and their houses and their cars, and live a life of nomadic grace while being (in my opinion) a little snobby about people who choose to go back to the “normal” life. How boring.

I knew I would go to a fixed life, that the life of being a nomad isn’t for me for many reasons. I also don’t see going to work for “the man” and actually having a real, live home as something that is holding me back, but rather something grounding me and helping me maintain sanity. It also helps that in most of my past jobs, I’ve had some fantastic coworkers and exciting projects that don’t make me completely hate what I do – and I can’t wait to get back to that.

And even though I’m going back to a so-called routine, I’m still anxiously aware that there won’t be anything routine about it. You guys, I’m going to be an adult. I have to figure out how to make friends, and handle retirement funds, and sort through how insurance works, and at one point probably file my own taxes. And this is so excitingly scary to me.

To steal a phrase from my old job, I’ve been spending the last year breaking out of the ordinary. That’s all well and good, but I think I’m ready for a little bit more ordinary in my life now.

Plus, I know this isn’t nearly the end of the K10 Travels. Who knows what’s next: USA roadtrip? Australia? The Balkans? All this and more, ready to be explored.

One thing that is DEFINITELY next:

Introspective Wednesday: The Last

So I realize I haven’t really done one of these since England, but since this is the last Wednesday ever of my travels and therefore the last Wednesday on my blog (unless you want to hear all about my unemployment and the efforts of my mother and me to make our fat cat into a lap cat), I thought it would be nice.
It’s been a crazy ride, y’all. I’ve certainly had my downs, from trying to figure out the transition in England to all the tribulations of solo travel (in both Slovenia and Asia) to physical injuries and beyond. But I’ve had the ups on exploring England’s beauty, playing in a London orchestra, watching some amazing sunsets, splashing around with elephants, taking it easy in China, and pretending to be the Underhills with my dad in a fancy Cambodian hotel. I’ve also had my educational moments in England, Laos, Cambodia, and beyond, learning more about the world around me.
I’m surprised by how my friendships have developed and new ones have taken seed in the past ten months. My friend Laura (the famous Laura Maas!) commented in an email about how rich how friendship had gotten in the past year. I’ve found this to be true with so many of my friends. I send weekly tomes to the Me in Ireland, a girl I didn’t even know a year ago. I received visits from wonderful friends during my travels, and stayed connected to those who couldn’t make it. When I had a visit of 24 hours to DC in January, I still managed to see a ton of friends and (more importantly) get a ton of free drinks. And the new people in my life who I’ve met by accident or design have done nothing but enrich it all. Even now I have two out-of-state visits, two bachelorette parties, and two weddings to go to just in the next four months – with friends I’ve known for three months, friends I’ve known for three years, and friends I’ve known for thirteen years. I’m a lucky girl indeed.
Some of my travel buddies, visitors, frequent Skype partners, and/or drink buyers…
 
Also, this is the famous LAURA MAAS!! (And when I saw this picture I got really homesick for that shirt I’m wearing. Or really any new clothes that aren’t the five I’ve been swapping between.)
 
I’ll leave you with a quote from the most famous dude in this part of the world, Buddha himself. (I actually saw this on a placard in a random bathroom in Siem Reap…)
When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back to the sky and laugh. 
 
Okay, nothing to do with travel, but I’m just really excited to see them again.
 

Welcome to the Jungle: Glamping in Kep

I woke up at 3.30am, desperately needing to pee (there’s your ladylike lede right there, folks!). I tried squeezing my eyes shut and convincing my bladder it could wait another few hours, but no dice. I carefully untucked the mosquito netting wrapped around my bed, groped around for the flashlight on the floor, and tiptoed across the wide-paneled wooden treehouse down the wobbly stairs slick with rain. After paying a visit to the garden (read: open-aired) bathroom and examining the back of my leg for a possible mosquito bite, I crept back up the stairs and shrieked loudly as a bat – yes, a bat – flew at my face suddenly before veering away. Yes, folks: I went glamping in Cambodia (that’s “glamorous camping,” for those not in the know).

As I type this, I’m sitting in one of those wicker round chair things on our treehouse balcony looking off into the valley as the sun dips lower and birds chirp merrily around me. I have to admit, my life could be worse. 
When my dad first started planning his part of the trip, he immediately booked a treehouse in an “eco-resort” in the seaside town of Kep. Yes, I keep saying treehouse. We are in a bona fide, no-fourth-wall, perched-up-on-stilts, treehouse. I promise you it isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. And that whole eco-lodge thing means that electricity is mostly for lights – no A/C – and WiFi in a non-starter. We decided before arriving to cut our trip short a day, in order to split up our travel to Vietnam over two days. So when we arrived to find our, ahem, rustic accommodations, I was glad we were only staying for a day and a half.

Even though I was eager to leave, I have to admit that all in all it was a pretty relaxing 36 hours. Although we had to endure several bumpy tuk-tuk rides on the very rutted dirt road leading up to the lodge (I can’t even begin to describe how bumpy that road is), we had some enjoyable relaxing time on our balcony, rode in a tuk-tuk through the countryside to a pepper plantation (Kampot pepper, guys, it’s a thing), enjoyed some meals on the sea, and most importantly, sussed out restaurants with WiFi and went crazy.

So the verdict on glamping in Cambodia? Definitely not something I’m eager to do again, but it certainly has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience to kick off my last week abroad.

P.S. Re: my Facebook query a few days ago, I did decide to start taking malaria pills. Can’t tell if I am having wildly hallucinogenic dreams or not; my dreams have certainly been vivid, but I’ve always had pretty vivid dreams. Bummer, huh? But no malaria yet (touch wood!).

Laying down some TRUTH on SE Asia

With less than one week to go before I am back in the U.S. and enjoying a delicious meal of Hamburger Helper (CRAVINGS I HAVE THEM), I’ve been reflecting a lot on what it is like to travel in this region. I’ve been bouncing around here for the past two months, minus that interlude in China. (Oh yeah, that thing.) Southeast Asia is a tourist mecca for a number of reasons – there’s a well-trodden backpacker’s trail, plenty of varied food options in the larger cities, relatively cheap costs (you can live a mid-range lifestyle for well under $50/day) and you can always find someone who speaks enough English to help you out when needed. Plus it’s a pretty gorgeous region.

Despite that, I was surprised by the unexpected difficulties and just how foreign this region can be. Crazy concept, huh? The very act of walking outside is an assault on the senses. It’s oppressively hot (and yet Cambodian women most often wear jeans, two long-sleeved tops, a scarf, and GLOVES when I would rather be naked than wearing shorts and a top I stole from my friend last year). The act of walking down the street is hard, as you navigate broken or missing sidewalks – and where there is a sidewalk, it’s usually covered with parked cars and scooters – forcing you to walk on the street. Dirt kicks up and cakes your skin as you pray no cars hit you. You can’t go two steps or stand still for five seconds before being ascended upon by tuk tuk drivers shouting and waving “TUK TUK? TUK TUK LADY?!” And saying no once doesn’t matter, because the thirty after him still think maybe I’ll say yes to them. Even if you navigate the streams of people, the exhaust spewing out of vehicles, and the heat, the smell of trash, street food cooking, and just plain humanity is enough to knock you over. So, who’s ready to go visit?!

It’s not a surprise that I’ve often taken refuge in places that exude the calm environment or the atmosphere at home. My dad and I were giddy walking through the nicest hotel in Phnom Penh after drinking at the bar, inventing our alter egos in case anyone asked. Even now, I’m happy as anything sitting in a huge Western-style coffee shop, sipping on an iced chocolate coffee and tapping this out on my phone.

I partly feel like a failure for wanting to escape to the nice when so many around me don’t have the option. I recognize I should be more adventurous when it comes to getting out of my comfort zone. But I have had my share on perching on a plastic chair on the street eating food from a cart and walking steadily across the street without getting hit. Sometimes baby needs to reward herself by sitting in an awesome café and watching the Lizzie Bennett Diaries (everyone, please. Watch them.). Cause you know what? That gives me just enough juice to jump back into the next level of crazy and prepare myself for this last week abroad. 

The light and the dark of Cambodia

Along with Laos, I knew incredibly little about Cambodia before making the decision to come here. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of its capital – Phnom Penh – until a couple of months ago. (For the record, it’s Pa-nom Pen.)

To me, Cambodia is a layered country, especially from the point of view of the tourist. Phnom Penh in particular is full of these contrasts around every corner. At first glance, it’s a gorgeous capital city with tree-lined streets set in a friendly grid pattern (thank you, France). The luxury hotels are truly luxurious, with graceful bars, soaring lobbies, and multiple infinity pools by the veranda. 
Dig a little deeper, and you see the rough edges of Phnom Penh, the indications that this is a poor country in a poor region of the world, beset by environmental challenges, diseases, and the ravages of war. Traffic is insane, but most people drive their family of five around on a tiny and cost-efficient motorbike. As you ride through a tuk tuk around the city, you pass streets teeming with food carts and open-air markets, trash and suspicious smells. I finally understand the phrase, “Assault on the senses.”
Then you dig even more, and hit the core of Cambodia, that which darkens its past, colors its present, and defines its future: the Khmer Rouge and the horrors of the 1970s.
I don’t know about you, but I knew nothing about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot except the vague understanding that it was a bad thing somewhere in Asia a while ago, and Pol Pot was referenced once on Gilmore Girls. Before arriving, I tried to read up on that period to have a better idea of what happened. But nothing can prepare you for visiting the sites of tragedy. 
In a nod to the phrase dark tourism, visiting sites where tragedies have occurred has become quite popular, whether for educational purposes or memorial purposes. Two such sites rank as the top attractions in Phnom Penh, despite their sadness: S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Prison, and the Killing Fields. 
You can read more about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities they committed on your own – I’m certainly not educated enough about them to educate you. What I can share were my thoughts upon visiting these sites. Rather I should say, I wish I could share my thoughts. But all I can summon are brief impressions that profoundly impacted me. 
Things like walking around a school-turned-torture-chamber-and-prison, where the museum curators have posted dozens of walls of pictures of the prisoners. Hundreds of faces stare out at you: some boldly, some accusingly, some with tears in their eyes. All I could think of to whisper was, “I’m sorry.”

Things like the museum exhibitions with pictures of Pol Pot and the other leaders – and their faces have been angrily scratched out by visiting Cambodians over the years.
Things like walking past the two-foot-wide wooden prison cells, the doors swinging open. Touching one of the doors softly and realizing who had touched it in the past.
Things like walking past the groups of visiting Cambodians, from the elderly to schoolkids on a trip to young children. Realizing that these events are entirely in the memories of all Cambodians, that we are only a generation removed. 
And that’s the thing: these atrocities were so recent. Trials for the leaders still haven’t concluded. In 2013! In fact, a big news story today is that one of the leaders who was on trial just died. 
But despite the heartache and the soul-crushing tragedy, Cambodia goes on. It certainly is a place for everyone to visit, if only to learn more about the worst of humanity but how goodness overcomes and marches on.