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Vientiane, Laos

Y’all, I’ve made progress with my biking skills! Two years ago I almost had a panic attack while trying to bike ride in Phnom Penh.  Although I eventually enjoyed that experience, I ended up not bike riding in Vietnam (days later) or Thailand (a year later).

Time heals all wounds (or makes a person foolish all over again) because I found myself renting a raggedy rusted bike for 10,000 kip and cycling around Vientiane like I was getting paid to do it. I pedaled furiously as a woman on a motorcyle led me to the Patuxai Arch, biked (and walked) my way up to Pha That Luang, and coasted past my earlier misgivings. By the time I returned the bike to the hostel, I was coated in enough dust to fill an hourglass and knew that I would be smelling car exhaust in my sleep.

Yet. It. Was. Glorious.

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Luang Prabang, Laos: The Honeymoon with Myself Begins

If Luang Prabang was a man, I would marry him after only three full days of dating with no prenup. As soon as my van rolled to a stop, I couldn’t help but think Oh, I’m going to like it here. Maybe it was the smell of firewood perfuming the air as people heated dishes on traditional cookstoves or the small roads with slow moving traffic. Whatever it was, I could feel my spirit shift.

As usual, the end of the semester was stressful. I was fruitlessly running back and forth to the US Embassy, working until 6:00, 7:00, or 8:00 grading essays, going to the doctor because I thought I contracted a ringworm (thankfully, it wasn’t), and Go-Jeking food like I didn’t have a fully functioning kitchen (well, almost fully functioning. My oven is useless).

I was regretting my decision to fly out the first Saturday after school ended until my feet touched the winding pavement in Luang Prabang. Originally, I was so tired I wasn’t even going to venture out for dinner. I ended up walking to the Night Market, exchanging money at a roadside stall and eating a delicious traditional dinner at 3 Nagas.

There’s something about unwrapping a banana leaf to access my food that gets me every time. It’s a small but joyous act.

Luang Prabang was the beginning of a honeymoon with myself. I’ve traveled to eight countries solo, but this was the first time I felt day after day like a place was seducing me in the best possible way. From small teapots to wooden shutters to sunny crisp days, I felt loved, safe, and at peace. I got lost while biking around the town (I would manage to not be able to follow the mighty Mekong from one destination to another), popped into wats that dotted the town, and sipped wine that a 70+ year old Swiss man surreptitiously slipped to me in a restaurant because “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” According to him, all the wine in the restaurant was subpar. He had a bottle in his backpack in case just such a thing would occur.

As a teacher, I honor all who are prepared like this Swiss man.

A former French colony, I enjoyed a croissant that was so good it caused me to tear up and a daily basket of warm bread with pineapple, tomato and/or banana and mint jam. There were scones to be scarfed savored, creamy pumpkin soups to enjoy, lemon tarts to rejoice over, crepes with homemade chocolate to relish, fish to…the list goes on and on.

Of course, Lao food is a must. Though I’ve taken cooking courses in New York City, Peru, Indonesia, and Thailand, the best cooking class of my life was in Luang Prabang. Sign up with Tamarind to cook and eat in a gorgeous open kitchen. While there, I tried buffalo for the first time and left with new friends as well as a cookbook (included in the class cost).

Trips to a nearby waterfall are popular, but I said no. I preferred to wander in the small city. I took early morning outdoor yoga classes, watched the Tak Bat (which has so many tourists taking pictures–myself included–I felt bad for the monks. I wouldn’t want to have flashing lights in my face every morning), chatted with other travelers over Bite Mes at the Icon Klub, cruised down the Mekong at sunset, shopped, and luxuriated in the blessing that was, and is, my life. I was back in my hotel room by 11:30 every night. There’s actually a curfew in the city (according to my hotel), so everything shuts down by 10:30.

Laotian people are friendly but more reserved (shy even) than other Southeast Asian ethnicities. Where Indonesians would stare at me with no shame even if I caught them looking at me, Laotians would avert their eyes embarrassed. Where Vietnamese street hawkers plied me with their wares and one woman put all ten fingers in my hair, a Lao woman in one shop told me to come back after thinking about it more and no one touched my hair.

Laotians are laid back and sweet people despite a horrific history. What I learned about that history will be shared in a future post.

Until then, I’ll keep honeymooning with myself.

The Gili Islands: Indonesia’s Response to Jakarta

 

As I continue to reflect on the travel I’ve done since moving to this region of the world, I can’t help but think about my trip to the Gili Islands. Where Jakarta is chaotic, the Gilis are calm. Jakarta screams while the Gilis whisper, and for this reason I really enjoyed my time while there.

My first year in Indonesia, I decided to do a yoga retreat during the March break.  A married couple that I befriended at work loved diving off of Gili Air and I, well, just loved the beach. Still do.

Gili Trawangan (aka Gili T), where I stayed, is known as the party island. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a partier. I have to convince myself to go out and actually liked that Luang Prabang, Laos had a 11:30 PM curfew.

I say all this because it was very easy to avoid the party scene in Gili T. Ignore the middle-aged man who asks if you want to buy shrooms every day at the same corner and explore the island instead. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Take a yoga class or two at Gili Yoga. Most days, I took two classes. One of my favorite memories in Indonesia is sitting on the wooden platform after a class and listening to the call to prayer. Glor-i-ous.
  • Eat, sleep, read, repeat on the beach.While at Gili T, I (foolishly) attempted to walk around the entire island in the heat of the day. When the heat got the best of me, I ended up stopping at Pink Coco and camping out. The food was good and the staff extremely friendly. It was a nice place to watch the sunset too.
  • Rent a rusty bike and circle the entire island. Cars are not allowed on the island, so that made the experience all the better (There are horse-drawn carts to get around, but I felt bad for the animals. Some were clearly overworked).  At points, I had to push my bike through the sand, but it was a beautiful way to spend the day.
  • Snorkel or scuba dive. The Gilis is a diving destination. Coral bleaching, pollution, and tourism are definitely damaging the wildlife. That being said, I’m so glad I snorkeled. I saw my first turtle there. As someone who loves the ocean but will only get in water up to my neck, another traveler I befriended had to convince me to snorkel. I’m so, so glad I did.
  • Island hop to Gili Air and/or Gili Meno. One day I took the ferry over to visit my co-workers on Gili Air. Again, I rode a bike and had a wonderful time cycling around, being near the ocean, and eating. In March 2016, one-way fare cost 40,000 Rp (roughly 3 USD). The ferry left twice a day.
  • Visit the Sama Sama reggae bar for live music. I have to be honest, I’m beyond tired of seeing Bob Marley murals and buildings decorated with red, green, yellow, and black whenever I go to a beach locale. As a Black woman with two-strand twists that are often mistaken for locs, I had locals come up to me soooo excited. Some asked me how I did my hair (and I laughed inside at the signs that promised to start locs for people). Still, if you want live music…it’s there.

What are your must-dos or want to dos when on an island vacation? Would you ever consider a yoga retreat?

 

10 Tips for First Time Solo Travelers Going Abroad

The New York Times just ran a piece titled “New Tools and Tours for Solo Travelers” and I am here for it.

As I type this in Luang Prabang, Laos, I’m propped up all by my lonesome in a bed that is large enough to fit me, another adult, and my two nieces (I have to be thankful for this moment because just this summer my scared of the dark nieces were determined to crowd into my childhood bed, fall asleep, and then proceed to destroy my sleep with swinging elbows. It was payback for how wild a sleeper I was when little.).

Since moving to Southeast Asia, I’ve visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and parts of Indonesia as a solo traveler. I’ve done everything from 24 hour extended layovers to three-week sojourners. Now that one of my best friends is planning some solo time, I’ve decided to outline my thought process when planning and enjoying a solo trip.

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Pulau Macan: One Island in Indonesia’s Thousand Islands

 

Pulau Macan

Since I’m now down to my last six months of living abroad, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about the trips I’ve taken.

One of my favorite sojourns was to Pulau Macan (also known as Tiger Island) my first year in Indonesia. A part of the country’s Thousand Islands, I went with a friend and co-worker during a long weekend. Though meeting at Ancol, the launching point, was stressful and boarding what looked like an overpacked boat was worrisome, I truly enjoyed Pulau Macan.

The water around Jakarta is polluted, which is putting it mildly. It was (and still is) the only time in my life where I’ve seen water as black as my hair (not because of sediment) and an actual trash line that served as an uncomfortable reminder as to how “convenience” is killing the planet.

Once the boat’s blades were detangled from the trash and we were speeding across the ocean, I felt as if a centrifugal force was launching me from the megalopolis and into paradise.

 

 

 

 

Pulau Macan’s entire perimeter can be traversed on foot in less than ten minutes. Besides the quiet that came with smallness (and considerate travelers who were also visiting at the same time), there were simple yet delectable meals, a weak connection to force me off of my phone, blue starfish, my great friend from work, two amazing Malaysian women to chat with, and the ocean. What else could I need?

If ever around Jakarta, I would highly recommend spending even one night out there. If that’s not possible, let the pictures below serve as a quick travel journey for you.

Portland, Maine: Encounters with Kindness

When my friends and I decided to take a girls’ trip to Portland, no one told us that Maineites??? Mainers would give Southerners a run for our money where hospitality is concerned.

Case in point: While taking a break on the Back Cove Trail that was filled with walkers, joggers, and bikers, a female jogger literally stopped mid-stride to approach us.

“Are you all OK? Do you need directions anywhere? I see that you’re tourists because you all have matching bikes,” she said while motioning to our orange rentals, “so I wanted to help.”

We were floored. This woman stopped her exercise routine for us?! After receiving directions from her and admiring once again the people, we continued on our way. This was not our first, nor would it be our last, encounter with kindness. People waved from the street as we drove by, were courteous drivers, asked if we were models (that’s always a way to a girl’s heart), and the list goes on.

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is known as an artsy, culturally rich (but in reality, isn’t every place where humans are culturally rich?) part of Thailand.

By the time I reached Chiang Mai for a five day stay, my body was weary from all of the travel. Little did I know that I would end up sick in bed a day after I returned to Jakarta. The culprit? A variation of Strep throat.

Since I didn’t know what was brewing in my body, I chalked up my wish to lounge around and read, not visit temples and just be, to me having too packed of an itinerary.

Here are some suggestions for things to do:


Wander around Warorot Market

I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted a bamboo steamer. Though I ended up not purchasing one, seeing a market, to quote a good friend, is a great way to get a culture’s pulse. Purchase the Thai version of Tiger Balm (that stuff is the truth!), dried fruit, and whatever else catches your fancy.

Eat at the Salad Concept

I begrudgingly went into here when walking around the Nihammen neighborhood. Stereotypical Texan, I’m not about eating too many plant-based meals for too long. Now, I’ve cut down on my meat consumption significantly and have not experienced getting sick nearly as much as I did my previous years abroad, but still…

I am ever glad that I did stop in here…twice. In one day. Freshly pressed mango and ginger juice; chicken, pumpkin, olives, red beans, and much more wraps; mint chocolate cake; tea; a mango-pineapple shake, the list goes on.

Explore artsy Nihammen (allegedly)

Now, I’ll be honest, I didn’t see anything in Nihammen except closed shops and traffic. Since I was there right after the New Year, I feel like I’d need to stay in the area to get a better feel for what it’s about. It’s highly recommended though. Unfortunately, I can’t say I saw anything in particular.

20170103_180209Visit More Markets (the Night Bazaar and tie Tha Phae Gate Market)

Of the two, I would highly recommend the Tha Phae Gate Market. At that market I had amazing shrimp dumplings, a Chiang Mai sausage (I wasn’t a fan), fresh passion fruit juice that brought tears to my eyes because it tasted just like the parchita I used to drink weekly in Venezuela, and mango & sticky rice. I also picked up beautiful scarves (I appreciated the vendor honestly telling me they were not handmade), fresh OJ, and souvenirs. I eyed a waffle stand, but didn’t partake. There are weekend markets too within the city walls, but I didn’t go to those.

Ride out to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary

EJS is more than an hour outside of Chiang Mai. I did the half day tour, which had me bumping in the back of one of those soft-top trucks with Argentinians, Canadians, other Americans, and a Scandinavian woman who was also traveling solo. The sanctuary encompasses a small space (or, rather, where, the tourists go), so it’s not like any serious hiking is involved. You can feed the elephants and bathe them (Prepare yourself for when they defecate. It’s quickly cleaned up, but it is what it is.). The money goes to a great cause and taught me not to ride elephants.

Take a Cooking Class at Zabb E. Lee Thai Cooking School

Along with the Tha Phae Gate Market, this was the highlight of my stay in Chiang Mai. After a short trip to a small market (where I picked up some saffron threads), we were cooking up a storm in the place! I made spring rolls, green curry paste, chicken in coconut milk soup, green curry with chicken, and mango with sticky rice. Everything was delicious. The best part was that each student received a small cookbook afterward. I’ve since made the recipes again, and I love them because they’re simple, quick to make, and high in flavor.