114 of the Coolest Things I’ve Experienced in the Last Year+ of Travel

In no particular order, over this past year+ I have:

1.) Quit my job in film in the US and moved to Thailand
2.) Gotten TEFL certified
3.) Eaten a scorpion on a stick in Bangkok
4.) Experienced the beachside, red-rocked cliffs of Lagos, Portugal. Who knew the Atlantic could look like that
5.) Floated effortlessly in Israel’s Dead Sea…and subsequently got a salt burn. Google it
6.) Explored an abandoned water park in a remote village of Vietnam
7.) Lived a 5 year dream of playing India’s Holi, the springtime color festival
8.) Unknowingly partied with some of Southern India’s most rich and famous on the top of the Ritz in Bangalore, India. Movie stars. Famous cricket players. Real estate moguls’ sons
9.) Volunteered at an elephant rehab center. Such majestic beasts
10.) Riden a camel through the Indian desert and then slept under the stars
11.) Bought a motorbike in Thailand
12.) Fallen off said motorbike and almost died. Twice. ((The bike has since been sold…))
13.) Stumbled upon fields of two of my favorite things: sunflowers (Thailand) and strawberries (Israel)
14.) Climbed countless mountains in Southeast Asia
15.) Went white water rafting in the Thai jungle. Two words: Jurassic. Park.
16.) Israel. Independence Day. Thousands of people in the streets. Virtually no crowd control. As the first fireworks shot off, everyone screamed in fright at the sound. Pause. Then cheers
17.) Learned Muay Thai from a tiny guy with a long braided beard. He was also the Rasta club bouncer. Chiang Mai, Thailand
18.) Cultured a new love/appreciation of cute coffee shops with free wifi around the world
19.) Spent 12 hours stuck in the freezing cold Beijing airport a day before Christmas (2015). Couldn’t go outside to see the Great Wall because the air quality would have caused my asthma to kill me. Lost my 2 day old Thai debit card in the process. No Facebook or Google in Communist China. Worst layover of my life
20.) Looked out over the Pyrenees mountains of Andorra and realized just how small I really am
21.) Sang karaoke in a private room that is probably just a cover as a sex motel. All the rooms had themes–Winter Wonderland, Spaceship, etc.–and the waiters knocked before they came in
22.) Witnessed one of Thailand’s most important holidays–Loi Krathong. Floating banana-leaf candle boats in the river. Thousands of lanterns lighting up the night sky. Happened to be on Thanksgiving (2015).
23.) Found a secret coffee shop hidden above a souvenir shop and had the most delicious coffee of my life. Hanoi, Vietnam
24.) Missed my tour boat at the Whisky Village, but managed to convince another boat guy to take me for free. Subsequently got adopted by an amazing group of elderly South Koreans on a family trip. They didn’t speak a lick of English, but they did treat me to lunch at a Korean restaurant after the tour. Luang Prabang, Laos
25.) Porto. Left a club at 6am when the sun was already shining. A combined total of 12 hours of drinking. #neveragain
26.) Rented my first apartment. Chiang Mai, Thailand
27.) Cuddled with a baby monkey. Malaysia
28.) Gotten chased by a pack of monkeys down a highway while throwing bahulu cakes (traditional Malay treats) in order to distract them. Also Malaysia
29.) Snuck into various music/dance parties including a super exclusive yacht EDM concert, and a desert hippy commune festival. Israel
30.) Gotten a full time job at a Thai film company and moved to northern Thailand on a whim and prayer
31.) Climbed up a waterfall with only a rope. The rocks were limestone and not slippery. Super cool. Chiang Mai, Thailand
32.) Flown over the Saudi Arabian desert. Never seen anything like it. Vast plains of sandy nothingness. Incredibly beautiful and mesmerizing
33.) Spent a night in a bamboo hut in one of the Lahu hill-tribe villages of Thailand. We ate copious amounts of traditional food, partook in a dance meditation around a fire, and watched in amazement as children as young as 2 set off firecrackers. It was their New Year’s celebration, and most of the kids had never seen a white person before
34.) Eaten a whole fried fish on a bamboo stick from the street market of Luang Prabang, Laos
35.) Hung out on the perfectly blue beach of Tossa de Mar in Spain’s Costa Brava region…that also sports a castle
36.) Visited the Grand Canyon…in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that is. Basically an old, giant quarry where people jump off cliffs and swim/float on bamboo rafts
37.) Israel’s Memorial Day. Stood along the side of the highway trying to hitchhike home with my friend. At 7pm, an alarm sounds. All the cars pull over. People get out and stand in silence for 3 minutes. It was both beautiful and incredibly somber. Two nice ladies took us home afterwards
38.) Almost gotten kicked out of the Taj Mahal because of my cookie pillow
39.) Stumbled upon a secret nudist beach hidden between the red cliffs of Portugal’s Algarve coast. Then I hiked/climbed/ass-slid down the half broken steps so I could get my boob tan on
40.) Taken a two-day slow boat from Thailand to Laos along the Mekong River. I have never seen jungle like that before
41.) Lived and worked as an au pair teacher with an adorable family outside Barcelona. Miss those rascals
42.) Stargazed high up on a canopy treetop walk in the Malaysian jungle
43.) Enjoyed Varanasi’s baang lassi yogurt along the Ganges River
44.) Gotten kissed in a SE Asian summer downpour, a la The Notebook
45.) Underground bunker turned college student rec room. Israel. I went to a candle light vigil and listened to the heartbreaking true stories of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors
46.) Helped my half Thai half Brit neighbor get over his fear of dogs
47.) Borderline almost fallen to my death during some unsupervised caving in Laos with a Brit and an American. The rock fell right after they pulled me off it…
48.) Relaxed in a hot tub at a 5 star resort over looking a mountain valley in northern Thailand. For free. #travelbloggingperks
49.) SEEN CASTLES–castles in hills of France, castles on the beaches of Spain, castles on mountains of Portugal. Lunch in castles; movie nights in castles. CASTLES. CASTLES. CASTLES.
50.) Went on my first ever fake IKEA shopping trip. The one where you wander around aimlessly and pretend that you have an apartment to furnish. Spain
51.) Cooked two Thanksgiving dinners two years in a row (2015-2016). The first was in a tiny water heater with instant mash, gravy and fried chicken from the guy at the food stall on the corner (Thailand). The second included a full spread for 10 people and consisted of mashed potatoes, gravy, greenbean casserole, stuffing, peas and a 12kg turkey that cost $90 (Andorra). Overkill? I think not
52.) Followed some teenagers on a motorbike through the Malay jungle and found a waterfall lagoon
53.) Camped in a tent on a beach in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Nothing like waking up to the sun rising over the water
54.) Gotten baptized in Israel’s Yarden River (Jordan River) by one of my best friends, also named Yarden
55.) Gotten a tattoo 3 days before traveling to Laos. This is in addition to my “Thai tattoo,” a.k.a. scars from the motorbike accidents
56.) Spent two weeks in Malaysia with a Brazilian travel vlogger working for the tourism board promoting the area. All expenses, accommodations, food, and adventure activities paid
57.) Enjoyed a Kinder surprise egg (illegal in USA )
58.) Witnessed the sheer chaos, yet somehow functioning, streets of India. Cows. Tuk tuks. Hoards of people. Vendors. Pooping. Honking. Yelling. Everywhere. All the time
59.) Jerusalem. Visited the Church where Christ was crucified
60.) Crashed a Malaysian wedding…as the only white person
61.) Taught a new friend how to ride a motorbike–those who can’t do, teach!
62.) Learned how to farm shrimp. Malaysia
63.) Received a free sunset dinner sailboat cruise through the many islands of Langkawi, complete with a rowdy group of Chinese tourists, homemade/questionable rum punch, and lots of diving off the bow
64.) Swum in 6 new large bodies of water including, the Andaman Sea (Thailand), the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea (Vietnam), the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Dead Sea. 7 if you include the Portugal side of the Atlantic Ocean
65.) Taken part in an authentic Jewish Passover Seder dinner. Complete with Hebrew Haggadah readings, jovial singing, and scouring the house to find the hidden Matza bread (just like hunting for Easter eggs! Oh wait…)
66.) Driven a motorbike for 3 hours along the rockiest road of my life, tires sliding out every 2 minutes. #wearahelmet
67.) Hiked through Mitzpe Ramon–one of the world’s only craters not formed by a meteoroid crash. And then found natural desert pools to swim in. DESERT POOLS. An oxymoron if I’ve ever seen one…
68.) Gotten a PADI SCUBA certification…and a double ear infection. Thailand.
69.) Spent two hours wandering around Bangkok at night to find a Penis Shrine Garden. Spent ten minutes taking photos and then went skinny dipping in the fancy hotel next door that was having a wedding reception
70.) Successfully spent 4 months in Asia and managed to NOT have an allergic reaction to any shellfish. Considering that they use shrimp paste in all their curries, this is a major personal win for me
71.) Met various people in one country only to meet up with them again months later and thousands of miles away in another. Travel breeds long-lasting friendships
72.) Finally gotten back a package that the Thai post was holding hostage for 3 months. Sent it to the States, never left Bangkok
73.) Gotten a traditional Thai massage and was not prepared at all. These ladies twist your body into positions that you never knew existed. Best $6 ever spent
74.) Tried countless strange foods at Asian street markets and never got sick
75.) Went to watch the Matrix at a hippy vegetarian cafe…and got food poisoning
76.) Floated down a river in the jungle and got drunk. Vang Vieng, Laos
77.) Gotten head lice from the hippies in the desert
78.) Been physically chased down by a very excited and adamant Malay street market guy who wanted me to try his noodles. They were delicious
79.) Gotten spiritual in a Buddha cave in Laos
80.) Convinced myself there was a ghost in the house my friend and I were dog sitting at. Doors shouldn’t open and shut by themselves with no wind. Israel.
81.) Eaten a NOT kosher cheeseburger ON kosher bread for Passover. Think that one over for a minute…
82.) Driven a car on the left side of the road. Malaysia
83.) Partied on various Thai islands for Halloween and Full Moon Party
84.) Spent close to 60 hours combined traveling on trains during a one month trip in India
85.) Sucked honey threw a straw right from the bee hive at a homestay in Malaysia
86.) Had a mini mental breakdown in the department store while trying to decide which mop to buy. Thailand
87.) Went on a mini vacation to the hot springs with my Thai friend’s family. Highlight of the trip: hard boiling a basket of eggs in the hot springs
88.) Bicycled through the pouring rain around Thailand’s ancient capital of Ayutthaya. This was after getting stuck in the city overnight with only daypacks because we missed the last bus back to BKK
89.) Driven a dune buggy through the Israeli desert at 65mph like a mad-woman. 7 months later, did the same thing in the snowy mountains of Andorra
90.) Been invited into the home of a kind Indian couple in Rajasthan for some henna and palm readings
91.) Discovered some jungle animal had chewed through my waterproof, canvas camera bag. Koh Tao, Thailand
91.) Joined a club and re-learned how to dance salsa and bachata. Chiang Mai, Thailand
92.) Made countless friends with conversations sparked because of my cookie pillow. Also witnessed countless children trying to steal/barter for my cookie pillow
93.) Hitchhiked in Kuala Lumpur. Eventually was picked up by a nice Muslim lady who proceeded to give us a tour of the city
94.) Accidentally ran into the same Muslim lady a week later in a completely different part of Malaysia in line for a sky ride at a theme park
95.) Slept in a bamboo hut on the side of a cliff. Koh Tao, Thailand
96.) Riden a brake-less bicycle alongside rice paddies everyday for a week to get to the beach. Hoi An, Vietnam
96.) Riden a horse on the beach in Malaysia while drinking a beer. Life goals
97.) Been written an IOU from the train lady in Barcelona because I didn’t have any cash and the machine wouldn’t take my credit card
98.) Stood on top of a radio communications tower and got an exclusive 360 degree view of Bangkok
99.) Been invited to a bizarre Chinese “birthday party” (honoring various Underworld Gods) by the toothless Malay hostel owner. Got smacked on the head/blessed with a smoking incense bush. Took shots of whisky and Guinness. Prayed a lot. Got my photo taken even more. Then there was a “Lady Gaga” concert–a.k.a. a lady boy doing gloriously bad covers of American songs. Best/craziest 20 minutes of my life
100.) Become addicted to Thai sticky rice and pork on a stick (moo ping). 25 baht. 70 cents
101.) Watched 10 Thai film guys erect an entire commercial set on the white sandy beach of a Thai island. 5 feet from the water. In under an hour. #filmefficiencyatitsfinest
102.) Learned how to ride a motorbike on a rainy day and curvy highway. Penang, Malaysia
103.) Gotten hit square in the face by a water balloon while riding in a bicycle rickshaw through the market streets of Delhi. My sunglasses fell off my face. Then I proceeded to watch 10 Indian kids run after the rickshaw trying to give them back to me
104.) In the last 16 months I’ve gone through various types of luggage, including a $200 hiking backpack a $50 suitcase, a $20 rolling duffel bag, a $15 regular duffle bag, and finally a $10 Indian backpack. I still use the cheapass Indian backpack. Only had to sew it once…so far
105.) Hopped on a train for a weekend escape to Barcelona and managed to show up with a broken phone, no cash, and no debit card. Made it work.
106.) Raced a handmade, wooden go-cart down a dusty mountain in Thailand. Didn’t have brakes. So dangerous, yet so fun
107.) Driven a speed boat through some Malaysian mangroves
108.) Gotten offered opium by some Thai ladies in Pai, Thailand. Thought they were trying to sell me cigs. Declined the offer, either way!
109.) Was given a traditional Indian saree by a good friend of mine. Then his adorable grandma taught me how to wear it properly
110.) Had an impromptu song written and sung about me by a bunch of Israelis in a forest. It was called, “Lauren from Virginia”
111.) Gotten lost in Chiang Rai at sundown and was picked up by this nice lady on her motorbike
112.) Witnessed a Ganges River burial ceremony. First the family and friends sit around the body and chant. Sometimes for days. Then they burn the body and put it into the river
113.) Fallen in love in Barcelona
114.) Accepted a teaching job in Andorra–a tiny country between France and Spain!

This trip took me through 10 countries over the last 16 months, including Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Israel, Spain, France, Portugal, and Andorra. I have officially circumnavigated the globe.

Countless people have been a part of my story, my journey, and my life, and I am so very grateful. I am currently working full-time teaching English in Andorra, and life is a blast. It feels good to slow down!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year+ (without getting all tearfully sentimental) it’s this:

Travel’s not about the destination, but rather, the people you meet along the way. I have less than $1,000 in my bank account, but I have friends all over the world. I am rich in culture and experience. And that’s what really matters to me.

Lauren’s Travel Superlatives/Awards
After much deliberation….

Best food: Chiang Mai, Thailand
Best coffee: Hanoi, Vietnam
Best beaches: Lagos, Portugal
Best mountains: Andorra
Best desert: tie between Jaisalmer, India and Mitzpe Ramon, Israel
Best party town: Vang Vieng, Laos
Best wine, cheese, & castles: Southern France
Best place to pet/get chased by a monkey: Kedah, Malaysia–specifically the side of the highway on Langkawi Island
Best place to fall in love: Barcelona, Spain

Happy New Year and Cheers!

L

Advertisements

5 THINGS I LEARNED WHILE IN ISRAEL

I spent a month in Israel visiting my friend Yarden. Here are some cool things/new words I learned:

1.) Shot vs. Chaser

If you go to a bar and want to order a shot, you need to ask for a “chaser.” If you ask for a shot, you will be served a double shot (not that I’m complaining). Many of our bar conversations went something like this:

Yarden: I ordered us a round of chasers.
Me: Okay…umm…do I get a shot too?
Yarden: You want a shot?
Me: Well what’s the point of getting a chaser if I don’t have anything to chase?
Yarden: What are talking about?

**Server brings round of “chasers” aka shots**

Me: Oh look! Shots!
Yarden: These are called chasers.
Me: What are you talking about?
Random Drunk Guy: L’chaim!

**We all drink and forget about the conversation…only to have the same thing happen at the next bar**

A chaser vs. a shot in Israel

In America (and I think most parts of the world), if you order a shot, you get between 1-1.5oz of liquor. Many people order a chaser to drink immediately after the shot (i.e. to “chase” the liquor/make it go down easier). This is often either soda, water, or juice.

In Israel, it’s totally different. Order a “chaser” if you want a shot; and a “shot” if you’re feelin’ frisky.

I still don’t know what they call actual chasers there. Sorry.

When you give up on shots and get litres of beer instead

2.) Where to Buy a SIM Card

Since leaving the US in Sept. 2015, I have had the pleasure of having 7 different phone numbers. Typically when I get to a new country, it is one of the first things that I do. Say goodbye to outrageous phone contracts and data limits! Getting a SIM card with data and minutes is as easy as buying a T-shirt from a street vendor. And almost as cheap too! In places like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, etc., you pay anywhere from $2-$10 for a SIM card and, at most, another $10 for data. 3/4G. 3GB. For a month. No joke. 

IMG_5877.JPG
My stash of SIM cards

In Israel, I had a different experience when going to buy a SIM card. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t just walk into a convenience store and buy one. According to my friend Yarden, I had to go to the post office. Yep. Where you send letters.

post
The Israeli post office

I truly couldn’t get over it. While this wasn’t the first crazy notion I had encountered in Israel (see #1 above), it was definitely one of the weirder ones. Why would the people who mail letters and packages also sell phone SIMs cards and data packages??? It still blows my mind.

After we found a post office and paid for the SIM card, we had to find a phone store so someone could cut the SIM card to fit my iPhone. Long story short we ended up flirting with the guy at a nearby store, and he cut the SIM card down for us gratis. He did try to sell me on the new Galaxy s7 phone (WHICH IS AMAZING. YOU CAN PUT IT IN A FISH TANK!??), but I decided to stick with my iPhone.

3.) Colloquial Expressions: “Life is strawberries” & “Eating a movie”

Common expressions and phrases that totally make sense in English but are difficult to translate to other languages include:

“It’s raining cats and dogs out there!”
TRANSLATION:
It’s fucking raining a lot.

“He stabbed me in the back, so now we don’t talk.”
TRANSLATION:
“That jerk slept with my girlfriend* (or some other transgression*), so now we aren’t friends.

“I quit smoking cold turkey yesterday.”
TRANSLATION:
“I suddenly quit smoking yesterday.”
cold-turkey
In Israel, I had the pleasure of hanging out with tons of Israelis who had never heard each other speak English before. It was really interesting, especially when they kept laughing at each other as they spoke. One cool thing to witness was when they tried to translate phrases from Hebrew to English in real time. Two awesome phrases that kept coming up were:

“She’s eating a movie.” [אוכלת סרט]
TRANSLATION: She’s thinking too much and needs to live in the moment.

Your life is strawberries.” [החיים שלנו תותים]
TRANSLATION:
Your life is so amazing, so chill out! No worries! Hakuna matata! Pura vida! Mai pen rai! (Thai)

NOTE: If your life is “too awesome,” then it’s “strawberries with whipped cream.” 

erdbeere

I found these phrases truly brilliant. When I first heard them I was astonished. They sounded so absurd. Why the hell would life be like strawberries?? Strawberries are squishy and go bad very quickly. That’s not how I want life to be! And movies! I love movies…I studied movies for 4 damn years because I love them so much. WHY WOULD I EAT A MOVIE? JUST WHY. But alas, the same can be (and most likely is) said about the English expressions I listed above. #perspective #itsallrelative 

Flash-forward one month and I often find myself using these expressions in my daily life here in Spain. It’s truly amusing when I say one of the phrases in English, then translate it literally to Spanish…AND THEN have to translate it again so the actual meaning gets through. #languagebarriers #communication #mindblown

Here are some shots of us living like our lives are strawberries.

Top left: Yarden and I covered in Dead Sea mud; Top right: My long-awaited baptism in the Yarden River; Bottom left: Yarden trying to open a bottle of wine with my pocket knife; Bottom right: Yarden bonding with the desert camel 

4.) Kosher McDonald’s

When I arrived in Israel it was just 2 days prior to Passover. Passover (or Pessah) is an important Jewish holiday that commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It has many traditions and rituals for what can and cannot be done or eaten during the holiday. Most importantly, Jewish people refrain from eating “chametz,” or anything that contains barley, wheat, rye, oats, etc. Which means no bread or cookies, unless they are made especially for Pessah.

You may have heard about Jewish people keeping “kosher.” Keeping kosher means observing certain dietary rules. Some basic kosher food principles include: not eating pork; not eating meat and dairy together; not eating shellfish.

During holidays, like Pessah, however, keeping kosher is more or less put into overdrive. Not only does it mean keeping regular kosher, but also Pessah kosher. One day I got to learn just how muddled the rules can become…especially when there are so many to keep in mind.

13062389_10154143017219287_6985982417764196125_nThis is what the supermarket looks like for Pessah. They literally hide the chametz. Love it.

SCENE: Friday afternoon. McDonald’s.

Lauren really wants a cheeseburger. She will concede if it doesn’t have cheese, since it’s not kosher.

2350289939_1a87d91d50_b

This is the conversation that happened that fateful day at the McDonald’s:

Me: I would like a cheeseburger, please.
Yarden: They probably won’t give you cheese. Not kosher.
Me: Shit. Right. Okay. Just a burger…Oh! And fries.
Yarden: I’ll still ask. (Hebrew) Hi, we would like a cheeseburger and fries. Are you kosher right now?
Cashier: (Hebrew) Yes we are.
Yarden: Okay, no cheese.
Me: No worries. Just get me some beef.
Yarden: (Hebrew) We would like a burger and fries.
Cashier: (Hebrew) We have cheeseburgers.
Yarden: (Hebrew) Really? So you’re not kosher?
Cashier: (Hebrew) We are kosher for Pessah. The bun is kosher.
Yarden: (Hebrew) Okay, hold on.
Me: What’s going on?
Yarden: Okay, apparently you can get a cheeseburger…but it’s on Pessah bread.
Me: So they’re kosher for Pessah…
Yarden: But not kosher for Shabbat.
Me: That’s weird.
Yarden: It’s really weird.

IMG_3313
“Kosher”cheeseburger with Pessah bread…it was yummmmmy

So I finally got my cheeseburger…and it was amazing. Yarden watched in disgust as I marveled over how good the Pessah bread was with the American classic. Honestly, it was tasty. Who needs wheat!

5.) “Schnatz” & “Schnekel”

I love learning new words. Especially in other languages. But the best words to learn in other languages are the ones that are made-up. It seems that every generation likes to put its touch on the language. Culturally this breeds diversity. And diversity it good.

In Israel I learned two words that I freakin’ love. They are just so damn cute and efficient–and that’s the best combination, in my opinion. The words are:

Schnatz: /noun/ /verb/

  1. A light sleep; a nap; a siesta
  2. To take a nap
    13151673_10154171725439287_3290556545916588414_n
    Here we are about to schnatz at the spa in the Dead Sea resort. It looks like a hospital, but it wasn’t. #bestnapever

Schnekel: /noun/

    2.) A nickname for the 2 shekel coin (“schne” is “two” in Hebrew). 2 shekels is approximately $0.50 USD.

shekel
So cute. So Jewish. So brilliant.

Over the last two years I have had the pleasure of learning about this great country and its people, all because of my good friend Yarden, her Skype sessions, and care packages. I feel so blessed to have finally gotten a chance to visit! For such a small place, Israel has so much to offer in terms of history, culture, and food. I learned so many things that go well beyond this blog post! Notable mentions, however, do go out to:

Shower squeegee mop: an essential bathroom item used to whisk excess water toward the drain, post-shower. Very useful when Lauren floods the whole bathroom because of her inability to shower correctly.

Clippers: handy-dandy lighters that you never seem to have enough of. It is often said amongst a group of friends, “We’re all friends here…until the clipper’s off the table.”

clipper

For anyone who might be apprehensive about visiting Israel…don’t be! It’s a truly special place and you should go see it for yourself.

13100711_10154158527119287_265761962084179477_n
The Sea of Galilee

Shalom!

Xx L

.

..

AND THE WINNER OF THE MOST AMAZING THING I EVER SAID IN THE HISTORY OF MY TIME IN ISRAEL GOES TO…

“No, Yarden. I don’t want my coffee with Hell, nor my shawarma with Satan, thanks.”

13139015_10154159134134287_3495701475972566996_n
SHAWARMA = LIFE

NOTE: “Hell” is the phonetic translation of  הל, which is the name for the sweet spice Cardamon. Cardamon is the world’s 3rd most expensive spice sold by weight, after vanilla and saffron. “Satan” is phonetic translation of סייטן, which is wheat gluten. It’s used as a meat substitute in some cooking.

DESERTS: INDIA VS. ISRAEL

A year ago if you told me that I would ride a camel in the Indian desert I would have laughed at you. But alas, it only takes a split second decision to change the course of your life. That’s what makes it both beautiful and troubling, all at the same time.

Over the last 9 months I have managed to visit not one but two deserts: one in India and one in Israel. Many people think deserts are all sand and cacti. While that might be true for some places, deserts (like people) come in many different shapes, sizes, and even colors.

Below you will find a photo essay of sorts, detailing my two separate desert experiences.

JAISALMER, RAJASTHAN, INDIA

About 65 miles east of the Pakistan border is a town called Jaisalmer. Also known as “The Golden City,” the town stands on a ridge of yellowish sandstone and is crowned by a fort. Jaisalmer is located in Rajasthan, the largest Indian state. Rajasthan has a rich history and many kingdoms thrived here over the years, as evidenced by the sheer amount of palaces, temples, and forts–think Maharajas and lots of gold.

Jaisalmer also lies in the heart of the Thar Desert, or the Great Indian Desert. This is where I went on a camel safari and slept in the desert…right under the stars. 

12993347_10154097400949287_2121636601789394630_n
Overlook of Jaisalmer–“The Golden City”

13346341_1755203344693849_5957156492390898549_o

13323637_1755203424693841_1116481941097484055_o

13323313_1755203661360484_2601280045444453404_o
Awesome shots of the Amber Fort in Rajasthan’s capital city, Jaipur–this place was truly breathtaking! We spent hours wandering around and even found hidden tunnels! ((Photo credsss Cadu Cassau))
13323370_1755204044693779_2502172178270615018_o
The famous Monkey Temple in Jaipur. We literally had to climb up and then down a mountain to get here.

THE CAMEL SAFARI

When I first got to India, I remember telling my travel partner, Cadu, that I wanted to ride a camel in the desert. Flash-forward 12 days and here we are.

First let me say that camels are HUGE. Really freaking tall. After driving 40mins out to the desert with some Thai girls in the back of a Jeep, we finally got to the camel safari lodge. After a quick snack, we were off to go meet our camels.

FullSizeRender
On the way to meet the camels!

I had the pleasure of getting chosen to ride a giant male camel. Apparently, at the time, it was mating season. That meant that this camel was particularly randy and kept making this bizarre guttural noise, puffing our his cheeks, and foaming/drooling excessively.  

13411627_10154243846324287_4244131407685198768_o
A camel and a cookie. Notice the distinct mouth foam/drool.

The camel ride itself was pretty tame. The scenery (as expected) was sparse, and limited to only sand dunes and desert shrubs. It was incredibly peaceful.

FullSizeRender_4

13403150_10154243845934287_6050749017793679798_o
Desert glam shot!

About halfway through the camel ride we took a break. The guides and all of us riders sat in a big circle, drank some beers, and listened to this local father-son duo sing in Rajasthani. You can check out Cadu’s video here to hear it! ((Cue the video up to 3:30 to listen…unless you happen to speak Portuguese, then watch the whole video with Cadu’s commentary!))

FullSizeRender_6

FullSizeRender_5
Sleepy camel
13416786_10154243846034287_7993269852261455332_o
There’s nothing quite like riding a horny camel through the Indian desert.

After returning from the camel safari, we had a delicious Indian buffet, complete with all the thali, dal fry, and desert-cooked roti you could want. Indian food = LOVE. The father-son duo even came back with us and continued playing music. A dance party ensued ((see video above)).

Then it was time to grab our bags and head back to the desert, set up our cots, and sleep under the stars. Our gracious guide loaded us and all the gear up in a camel cart, and within minutes we were back in the desert…and it was pitch black…and dead quiet. Very surreal.  

12928387_10154097403894287_3282776717596372886_n
With only two cots, a few blankets, and the stars above–we got a (surprisingly) great night’s sleep!
12993337_10154097403949287_6167940375925265796_n
Good morning cookie

Falling asleep under the stars was–for lack of a better word–amazing. I have never seen so many stars in all my life. The constellations washed over me in waves and all I could do was stare until my eyes glazed over, and eventually, closed. 

In the end, Jaisalmer ended up being my favorite place in India. The desert camel safari was truly an incredible experience, and I am happy to have done it. 

12990947_10154097401154287_6809669547312563826_n
Jaisalmer vendors truly know their demographic.

ISRAEL

Just to catch you up:

I left India after a month of travel. I spent two weeks in the north with my friend Cadu, and two weeks in the south semi-solo—>I met up with a good friend of mine named Bhairav and he let me stay at his family’s house in Bangalore. THANK YOU KUTTAIAH FAMILY. 

Then on April 19, 2016, I did something I said I was going to do for two years: I flew to Israel. Let’s step back in time for a second…

Two years ago I was in Prague on my post-college backpacking trip. It was there that I met an Israeli girl named Yarden who was traveling with her friend, Vladi. Little did I know that that chance meeting at the hostel check-in desk would change my life forever.

13087852_10154143019494287_944280601909869724_n
How time flies! Top: Vladi, me, and Yarden in Berlin, 2014. Bottom: Our reunion in Israel, 2016!

Yarden and I stayed in touch for two years. We Skyped, talked on Whatsapp, and even sent care packages to each other every few months (she always sent me a giant box of Israeli chocolates <3). I am incredibly connected to Yarden, both in mind and spirit. In March 2015 I was supposed to visit her for the Jewish Purim holiday, but couldn’t because of my work schedule. But finally, in March 2016, I committed to going.

10505341_10152510961889287_1290977695898513492_n
My first care package from Israel–filled with chocolate, a mixed CD, and some shekels!

I flew in to Tel Aviv after a connecting flight in Cyprus (must go back here! So pretty from the sky!) where Yarden and her mom picked me up. Seeing Yarden after all this time was a borderline time-warp. It was as if we had just seen each other yesterday!

I had a little over three weeks in Israel (before I had to fly to Barcelona, Spain to start a teaching job), and I couldn’t wait to begin the journey with Yarden!

Luckily for me, Israel is small–like smaller than New Hampshire small. We drove up and down that country in Yarden’s tiny pink car multiple times. 

13055559_10154143016164287_3081511866118228446_n
Car selfie on the way to Kfar Yuval, where Yarden’s house was located….literally a stone’s throw away from Lebanon. Apparently I could ride a bike to the border…but they might shoot me. Good to know!

I’m 90% sure I visited everywhere in Israel–or at least most places…Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Safed, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and copious kibbutzim!

Here are some highlights:

13173017_10154171724429287_5973804247722003149_o
The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem
13124487_10154158526364287_2397941994968940874_n
One word: HUMMUS
13133090_10154158527439287_2783845145589032013_n
View of beautiful Tel Aviv from historic Jaffa
13062002_10154143016579287_3213349113331728028_n
Eatin’ peppers at a hidden lake near Kfar Yuval
13151879_10154171726739287_4252773020333046895_n
Floating effortlessly at the Dead Sea. LOOK! You can see Jordan from here…
13118896_10154159133889287_4378873763254693865_n
Hangin’ with Vladi at the medical lab in Safed.
13138872_10154171725294287_2913486595533876088_n
Much to my displeasure, Israeli sweets helped me gain back the few pounds that I had lost in India…
13165861_10154158528299287_1720635079758840076_n
The Yardenit River in the Jordan Valley, where I had the pleasure of being baptized! #finally

But the one place in Israel that I loved most of all was…(drum roll please)…

MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL

Being the badass friend that Yarden is, she scored us a 4 day free stay at this house in the desert-town of Mitzpe Ramon, home of the Makhtesh Ramon Crater. And all we had to do was babysit two puppies. HELL YES.

IMG_3886
The glorious Ramon Crater
IMG_3932
Hiking in the crater
13083322_10154143017199287_1765037144880036200_n
The puppies looking deceitfully peaceful…

Lucky for us, we got to Mitzpe at just the right time. It wasn’t too hot AND it had just rained—which meant that there were desert pools. Think oasis except this one isn’t merely a mirage…

IMG_3933

IMG_3939
We found the first pool!
IMG_3971
Pool #2! This one was much larger…but also much muddier!

Mitzpe Ramon is an extremely unique place. People come from all over to visit the Ramon Crater here in the Negev [desert]. The sand of the Negev is much rockier than what I saw in India. It isn’t a desert in the traditional sense of giant sand dunes, BUT the sand does have different colors. Red, purple, yellow, white, brown! Lots of people collect the sand and layer it in glass jars. There is even a whole makeup and soap line derived from the minerals in the desert! 

sand
SO MANY COLORS

Another fun fact: The crater itself isn’t an impact crater from a meteor (sorry folks, this isn’t the one that killed the beloved dinos). Nor was it formed from a volcanic eruption.

I know what you’re thinking: Aliens.

IMG_4079

Because that’s what I thought too. But alas, no. This crater–40km long, 2-10km wide, and 500 meters deep–was formed by rain, rivers, and climate change (commence global warming debate…)

According to Wikipedia, this is what happened:

“Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Negev desert was covered by an ocean. Slowly, this started to recede northwards leaving behind a hump-shaped hill. The hump was slowly flattened by water and climatic forces. Approximately five million years ago, the Arava Rift Valley was formed, with rivers changing their courses, carving out the inside of the crater which was a softer rock than that overlying. The crater bottom continued to deepen at a much faster rate than the surrounding walls, which gradually increased in height. As the crater deepened, more layers of ancient rock were exposed with rocks at the bottom of the crater being up to 200 million years old.”

Tldr; Ocean came, ocean went. Rivers carved out valley from old mound. Wind took care of the rest.

Some pretty cool stuff if you ask me 🙂

13092199_10154143018914287_7425201663499625554_n
Zen moment inside a cave overlooking the crater

On one of our last days in the desert, Yarden and I got a chance to ride dune buggies in the crater. For 3 days we were searching for this one company that booked trips but we COULD NOT FIND THEM. It was as if this company did not exist. We talked to EVERYONE about it, left our names and numbers with some random people at bars, and called a number countless times before–by some grace of God–this lady called Yarden back and asked if we wanted to go…right now. We said YES! And the lady said, “OK, be here in 10 minutes.” Why the fuck not!

Within 20 minutes of that lady calling us we were signing injury waivers, putting on anti-sand do-rags, and riding off into the crater.

IMG_3993

We took turns driving the buggy in the crater, and each time we got more confident. At first we were driving like grandmas, but it didn’t take long for the adrenaline to kick in before we were spinning out and kickin’ up desert dust!

13124851_10154143018024287_1356283988696592580_n

IMG_4130
Our guide was nice enough to speed ahead and snap some pictures for us 🙂

Click here to see a video of us driving like crazy people! Notice the guide talking to us in Hebrew on radio…something about using the brakes…

Overall, my desert adventures were exceptionally different but equally as amazing! From riding camels to racing dune buggies, it was all a part of the experience! I highly recommend both India and Israel to anyone looking for unique travel destinations–don’t hesitate to hit me up if you have any questions!

Much love muchachos,

Xx L

 

 

 

Here is a link to a wild video we recorded one night in Mitzpe Ramon. I am still convinced there was a ghost in the house that night…

HOW I ALMOST GOT KICKED OUT OF THE TAJ MAHAL

Full disclosure: I’ve been kicked out of class. I’ve been kicked out of bars. Hell, I even got kicked out of the hot tub at the local YMCA.

But never did I think I would get to a point in my life where I would [almost] get kicked out of one of the World Wonders…

Here’s what happened:

Long story short, my India travel buddy, Cadu, and I took a 12 hour train from Varanasi (one of the most spiritual places in India, on the Ganges River) to the town of Agra (i.e. where the Taj is).

IMG_2949
Varanasi, where millions of people come to pray, meditate, and bathe in the sacred Ganges River…as well as cremate their dead by the banks. Or just float the body into the river. That works too.
IMG_2765
Cramped top bunk of one of the many trains in India. Playing cards on the cookie pillow like a boss.

Waking up at 6am to see Indian men squatting alongside the train tracks for their ‘morning business’ was a wonderful way to start the day. This is the real Indian experience. Hoards of people everywhere, even more flies, piles of trash, and cows. And of course some of the oldest and most beautiful forts, mausoleums, and cities on Earth. We’re talking tens of thousands of years of blended history, religion, and culture.

FullSizeRender (9)
The bustling streets of Varanasi
FullSizeRender (10)
Cows be like…”I’m sacred, I don’t gotta move for anyone”

Unfortunately for the people of Agra, and at no fault of their own, pretty much the only thing to do there is see the Taj. There is also the city fort and the “Baby Taj,” but everyone that goes there sees the Taj and then leaves, without even the spending the night.

Anyway—

So we arrive in Agra around 7am, drop off our bags at the train station locker room (yes, this is a thing), and make our way out into the city to find a tuk tuk driver for the day. At 5pm that very night we were going to catch another 12 hour train to a city called Jaipur, also known as “The Pink City.” Most of the buildings there are made of red sandstone, hence the term ‘pink.’ There is also Jodhpur, “The Blue City”…you can see where I’m going with this.

IMG_3189
The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, “The Pink City”
FullSizeRender (12)
Jodhpur, “The Blue City”

So basically we had 10 hours to spend in Agra. More than enough time.

Walking outside the train station, Cadu and I were quickly surrounded by tuk tuk drivers, all yelling exorbitant prices at us for renting a tuk tuk for the day. Fortunately for us, we had been in India for about a week at this point and knew what a fair price should be. In this case, we settled for 250 rupee for the day (about $3.5).

After a 15 minute drive, we arrived at the Taj. The driver dropped us off at the east gate of the property and we walked from there…of course after getting lost and roaming around for 30 extra minutes. 

For anyone who doesn’t know what the Taj Mahal is, let me first tell you what it is not:

  1. It is not a palace.

That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions about the Taj. It is in fact an ivory-white marble mausoleum. Yep. A tomb. Construction began in 1632 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to house his favorite deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The property has gardens, a guest house, and a mosque. 

Anyway, it took about 11 years to complete. Various work has been done on it since then, of course, and with today’s inflation it is estimated to have cost about 53 billion rupee (around $830 million dollars). Mumtaz must have done something right…

Walking up to the security check was both exciting and nerve-racking. There are a lot of signs depicting what you can and cannot bring into the complex. Cadu and I had eaten our food and ditched some other things that we couldn’t carry in. I had my camera, my purse, and my cookie pillow. Cadu had various camera equipment, including a tripod and a microphone.

FullSizeRender (8)
Just one of the various security checks at the Taj extrance

The security checks here are pretty intense. TSA has got nothing on these guys when it comes to the Taj. There are two separate lines, one for females and one for males. After splitting up, having our tickets double checked, and getting a pat down, we went to the x-ray scanner line to have our bags screened. At this point I have already had two guards become suspicious of my beloved cookie pillow. Quick thinking afforded me the opportunity to both explain and demonstrate how the pillow was for my back and nothing more. Thank you childhood scoliosis!

When we got to the x-ray scanner, the guards told Cadu that the tripod and the microphone weren’t allowed. In fact, video filming wasn’t allowed at all. Well shit.

So they sent Cadu all the way back to the ticket counter to rent a locker and leave his stuff.

Meanwhile at the security line, another 2 guards became–this time aggressively–suspicious of my cookie pillow. They took it from me. Held it. Shook it. Squeezed it. Passed it around like a newborn baby. Somehow, I made it through the x-ray scanner line and through another body scanner with the cookie still in tow. As I waited for Cadu to come back and get through security, I took the time to truly play the part of poor, injured American girl and used the cookie pillow to prop myself up against a wall. #theatrekid

Finally, Cadu came back and we went to go see the Taj.

FullSizeRender (6)

Damn, was it beautiful. I truly couldn’t believe how big it was. Massive.

The Taj wasn’t that crowded that day since it was early, but Cadu and I still had to wait our turn to get a good spot in front of the platform to take our obligatory Taj pictures. Cadu went first. Selfie. Selfie. Snap. Snap. I took a few photos for him. Took a few of the Taj for myself. Then I asked Cadu if he could take my picture with the cookie pillow.

With a wide smile, a burst of energy, and no shame, I thrust my cookie pillow high into the sky and waited eagerly for the flash…

But instead of a flash, Cadu and I were swarmed with guards. About 6 of them. And they had guns. And they were yelling at us. In Hindi.

The guards took my cookie pillow and yelled “No! No! No!” and pointed at the camera. Other tourists were looking around in confusion. The guards were frantic. Talking excitedly to each other. Cadu and I stared blankly. And it was scary. I seriously thought we were going to be arrested and thrown in jail for violating some unwritten law in India that says you can’t take a picture of the Taj with a cookie pillow.

IMG_3021
After recovering from the cookie pillow incident, we managed to get a photo of me…sans cookie

Apparently (according to a nice, local(?) guy who spoke English), you are not allowed to take pictures while holding up signs or personal items. Oh, right. Totally. My bad…Just for the record, none of the DO/DON’T signs said that!

Finally, after apologizing profusely and promising not to take a picture holding the cookie pillow, the guards grumbled a few more words in Hindi, frowned, and dispersed (where did they even come from that quickly??), and I was left with my cookie pillow and no picture. At this point we were lucky to still be allowed to walk around the complex. So we took a couple more [awkward] photos and decided to walk down through the gardens and go visit the inside of the Taj.

FullSizeRender (2)

When I said the Taj was massive, I meant it. Standing beneath the structure was akin to being dwarfed by a 240 foot tidal wave.

FullSizeRender (1)
Trying to make the (already really f***ing tall) Brazilian appear larger than the Taj

In the end, my Taj visit was [terrifyingly] positive. It was such a rewarding experience to put on the little shoe booties and walk around in one of the most iconic places in the world. 

IMG_3033
Loved these things

FullSizeRender (7)

One last thing! I know I said there is virtually nothing else to see in Agra (in terms of historical sites) besides the Taj, but…if you ever are there, do take an hour or so and go see some of the local artisans. The guys over at the marble store do truly amazing work and will even teach you how to carve and inlay precious stones (a la Taj). Also go visit the guys at the carpet store who spend 15 hours weaving just one Indian/Persian rug. These guys work extremely hard and are incredibly generous. You won’t regret it.

FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender (5)

Stay classy!

Xx L

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FullSizeRender (3)
An illegally-snapped photo of the cookie pillow with the Taj! They only said I couldn’t ‘hold it’… 

ONE CRAZY DAY AT THE MALAY HOMESTAY

Many people assume that, as a traveler, every day for me is exciting–but that’s not always the case. When I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 3 months, I led a relatively normal life. I woke up, got some work done, met friends for coffee, exercised, etc.

I just did it in Thailand. #exotic

12304501_10153745361774287_8681967258851673135_o
Here is the view from my apartment balcony in Chiang Mai. I spent countless hours here reading, working, and enjoying the view.

Now that I am on the move again, I do seek new and interesting adventures. But, in all honesty, having crazy days every day does get exhausting.

To extend my travels as long as I have (6 months!), I have learned to embrace the fine art of ‘slow and steady’ travel. That being said, for every few days of low-key traveling I do, there’s always one day that turns out to be a whirlwind of complete insanity. And it’s these types of unique experiences that make traveling worth it for me.

I recently had one of these days in Malaysia.

Let me get you caught up:

After leaving Thailand in February, I traveled solo through Laos and Vietnam for three weeks. My next stop was Cambodia (to get my Angkor Wat on!), but I instead took a leap of faith and at the last minute decided to meet my friend/Brazilian travel vlogger, Cadu Cassau, in Malaysia.

12832584_10154014396724287_2905149447755711096_n
This is Cadu. He likes coconuts and sunsets.

Sometimes traveling solo gets lonely; and it’s always nice to see a friendly and familiar face!

For the last 15 days, Cadu and I have been traveling together through northern Malaysia, promoting the area for the local Tourism Board of the state of Kedah. Kudos to Cadu for hooking us up with sponsored accommodations, transportation, and adventure activities!

We spent our first week on the mainland, seeing many sites around the capital city of Kedah, Alor Setar.

10426755_10153998239764287_3569016555252036560_n
The Zahir Mosque (top 10 in the world!), located in the heart of Alor Setar, Malaysia.
12821532_10153998239814287_5226336824036345876_n
The view from the observation deck of the Menara Alor Setar Tower–88 meters (289 feet) high!
12832580_10153998240034287_5099669167018343680_n
A local Kedah fisherman proudly displays his giant mackerel (?) at a riverside market.

After Alor Setar we made our way to the village of Ulu Legong in Baling, where we were to stay at a local homestay.

Up until this point I had no real expectations of what a homestay should be. I assumed we would be welcomed into someone’s home, try some local dishes, and sleep on a bamboo floor (I had a similar experience with Cadu in the mountains of Chiang Mai at the Lahu hill tribe village). When the car pulled up at our homestay, I was not fully prepared for what was about to happen.

The next 9 hours were sort of a blur, but I will try to relate the series of events to the best of my ability:

Within seconds of stepping out of the car at the homestay, we were greeted by our host, Paklong (which means ‘Uncle’ in Malay). With a smile on his face he gave us two straws and insisted that we try fresh honey from his beehives.

1483357_10153998240214287_1488745980156780770_n12821467_10153998240339287_9036394160563653492_n

To say that this man was amazing is an understatement. I have never met someone so happy and excited to have random travel bloggers stay at his home.

Paklong’s village has many homestays, but very few foreigners who visit them, apparently. Having us at his homestay was an honor and he was very proud to show us off. This man must have called 15 people over the next hour to brag that we were staying with him.

Fun fact about traveling with Cadu: EVERYONE LOVES BRAZIL.

Here is a sample conversation between us and whomever we meet along our travels:

Stranger: Hello! Who are you and where are you from?
Me: Hi! I’m Lauren from the U.S.
(Stranger smiles and nods)
Cadu: I’m Cadu, a travel vlogger from Brazil.
Stranger: OH! YOU’RE FROM BRAZIL!? WELCOME!
(Stranger excitedly shakes Cadu’s hand and nods politely at me)

Such is life. At least no one is asking me about Donald Trump…

FullSizeRender (1)
Inside Paklong’s home enjoying coffee and biscuits.

After tasting the most delicious honey I have ever had, Cadu and I were ushered into Paklong’s home to have afternoon coffee (with honey, of course) and biscuits. Sitting on the floor of his home, we were already like family. Multiple photo sessions ensued.

Apparently Paklong takes two spoonfuls of honey every day–and that’s why he has amazing skin and looks so young…#goals #findmesomehoneyplease

After our coffee break we were asked if we would like to experience a Malaysian wedding…um, YES.

Within 30 minutes we had changed our smelly clothes and were whisked away to a local village wedding.

Walking up the dirt path to the reception tent, I realized just how foreign I was. Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country…and every woman I saw was wearing long-sleeves and a hijab. With my bare, freckled shoulders and flowing, red hair, I was prepping myself for the onslaught of stares.

10301957_10153998240539287_1212833121708402287_n
Did anyone order a ginger girl and a tall Brazilian?

This wasn’t my first time crashing a wedding, but it was my first time crashing a wedding where I stood out like a sore thumb… and effectively ‘stole the show’ from the bride and groom.

Luckily, as guests of Paklong, we were warmly invited by the wedding party. Shortly after arriving we were joining everyone for the reception dinner–curry, rice, fish, and lamb!

In Malay etiquette, you eat with your right hand. This was something totally new to me and Cadu, but fun nevertheless!

1936389_10153998240379287_5533361190982020857_n
Photo op with the newlyweds!  At least I had enough sense to cover up with my shawl.

We couldn’t have been at the wedding for more than an hour, but it was a wild (albeit brief) experience!

Of course, there were obligatory photo shoots with the white girl and the Latino.

1459667_10153998240434287_384056030136374381_n308557_10153998240464287_3978044432482870117_n

Notice how more and more people just kept showing up in the pictures.

I wonder how many photos were taken of us that day vs. how many were taken of the newlyweds…

12832327_10154005223609287_381753962963284314_n
This mother and daughter duo were so beautiful!

After the wedding, we went back to the homestay, dropped off our bags and prepped for the next adventure: river trekking to a lagoon.

It’s a solid 95 degrees (35 celsius) and full humidity at this point. Swimming seemed like the only reasonable activity.

12809619_10153998240154287_1460847821386489864_n
Here’s a picture of me the day prior with Zoe, the baby monkey. It’s 9am–notice how the sweat is already dripping off me. Thank you, Sun.

Not long after, we were on motorbikes, riding off into the jungle to the river lagoon.

DCIM100GOPROG0031410.
One of the scarier motorbike rides during my travels in Asia.

A narrow dirt road + increasingly dense forest foliage = a recipe for disaster on a 115cc motorbike.

Luckily we made it to the lagoon without a scratch…

10399565_10153998240864287_637011413682361725_n

And thank goodness! Because the river lagoon turned out to be a waterfall lagoon–and it was beautiful.

We spent a better part of the sweltering afternoon at the lagoon just swimming around and jumping off the rocks. Paklong’s sons/nephews were our gracious hosts for jungle excursion.

DCIM100GOPROG0291621.
The lagoon gang.
DCIM100GOPROG0181454.
Swimming against the ridiculous current to snap a photo near the waterfall. Kudos, Cadu.

Exhausted and dripping wet, we arrive back at the homestay. But the day is still young!

The next thing we know, we find ourselves in a van and are off to visit…(drum roll) a shrimp farm!

Fun fact: I am deathly allergic to shellfish. 

10603745_10153998241064287_6826704925874131172_n

The shrimp farm was located in this beautiful valley only a few minutes from the homestay.

After watching the professionals throw the nets and collect the shrimp, Cadu gave it a whirl.

11994_10153998241124287_1812939627128800113_n
Brazilian biologist turned travel vlogger turned shrimp farmer.

I didn’t touch anything at the shrimp farm save for the camera, but that was all right with me.

3491_10153998252394287_7791472948420553493_n
Trekking around the shrimp farm with our homestay family.

After another photo shoot, we piled into the van, picked up a few more people, and went straight to the Ulu Legong night market.

59695_10153998252399287_5597859702805219014_n
Photo op with the glorious mountains at the shrimp farm 🙂

I have been to plenty of night markets in Asia, but this one had the unique quality of being comprised entirely of local people…minus us.

12821552_10153998253114287_5704363728404578703_n
A delicious crepe-like dessert at the street market in Ulu Legong.
12814742_10153998252969287_6567652810939782741_n
Sugar cane juice in the process of being made. It was crazy cool to watch!

Again, many photos and stares ensued. EVERYONE wanted us to try their food. Paklong made sure we had as much local cuisine as possible. I swear my stomach was at twice its limit by the time we left.

But damn the food was good.

IMG_2115.JPG
This guy flagged me down in the street and begged me to come to his stall and try the soup–it was great!

As our day was coming to a close, we found out that there was one more activity planned for us: the hot springs.

Seeing as how Malaysia is brow-drippingly hot during the daytime, it only makes sense for people to enjoy the natural hot springs at night.

Luckily for Cadu and I, we were able to rest for a few hours before going to the hot springs.

Zzzzzzzz……….

When I think of hot springs, I think of secluded forests, rock pools, and monkeys. But this was not the case.

These springs were akin to a local swimming pool. Families, music, food stalls…all at 9 o’clock at night! This was the place to be! Literally the local watering hole. Hell–there were even chairs set up so you could get a foot massage.

 

FullSizeRender
The only photo from the hot springs!

Cadu and I had the pleasure of enjoying the springs for about 10 minutes before it started pouring rain. This was also the time when the GoPro died, hence the lack of photos. Sitting in the hot springs during the rain was surprisingly rejuvenating. Some people got out of the pool to take shelter, but we figured we were getting wet anyway…

10299924_10154005223394287_2012902573976370630_n
The much-needed rain after a long, hot, eventful day.

By the end of the night we were exhausted. Never have I done/seen/met so many new/different things and people in a matter of hours. This is just one of the many joys of traveling abroad.

My advice to anyone who is given an opportunity to experience something new is to always say yes. Better yet–scream YES! with fervor and don’t look back.

You won’t regret it (and if by some rare chance you do, you should at least have a good story to tell).

:))

Stay classy folks,

Xx L

DESERTED WATERPARK IN VIETNAM

If you ever find yourself traveling through central Vietnam, be sure to stop by Hue–a once royal and now historic town. After visiting the ancient Forbidden City and other tourist sites, grab a bicycle, brave the chaotic streets, and go check out the abandoned waterpark that lies about 7km south of city center.

12800229_10153976448239287_3516426483275405265_n12801526_10153976447834287_1482526303897897557_n12814802_10153976448154287_1665860950881810599_n
The Forbidden City, Hue, Vietnam

After about forty minutes of defensive pedaling through the outskirts of Hue (stoplights do not exist and horns blare constantly), you’ll find yourself in a place that looks like it came straight from an early 2000s horror film.

12799086_10153976446499287_3100063001794981727_n
Towering over the lake like a guard dog, this massive (sea?) dragon effigy almost looks real

This is Ho Thuy Tien.

12821426_10153976446049287_7095446972030931282_n
The creepy entrance sign

Popular with photographers, local teens, and an increasing amount of adventurous travelers, this place is not for the faint of heart.

10259891_10153976446344287_974494545936721070_n

I’ve done a lot of urban exploring in my heyday. Derelict farms in North Carolina, defunct schoolhouses in Virginia, ghost riverboats in Austria–but never have I seen something like this before.

12803022_10153976446534287_5979515920576033784_n
Jaws has returned…again

Little is known about the waterpark, but from my research I believe it was abandoned a little over 10 years ago. Amidst the crumbling walls, broken windows, and discarded bottles in the main building, you’ll find what was once a well-kept aquarium. Now all that’s left are dusty fish tanks, a rickety old staircase, and overgrown fern foliage.

12813913_10153976446674287_1839364052199020714_n
In the belly of the beast

Walk up the long staircase to the roof and be sure to take notice of the rib cage skeleton above you. Weird. And awesome.

After battling the dragon, I took a stroll around the lake–which was pretty tranquil given the circumstances.

12799395_10153976446729287_8914908615236246481_n
And for an abandoned waterpark, there sure are a lot of cows

The park features various different slide pools now overgrown with brush and algae.

 

12795328_10153976446989287_8284275240454031422_n (1)12191852_10153976447204287_8353925328813450342_n (1)12832523_10153976446939287_5673423633073584516_n (1)

There is also a stadium and even an old spaceship ride!

12802734_10153976447619287_2802306081834401119_n12809540_10153976447529287_1689474589303329547_n

I spent a better part of an afternoon at Ho Thuy Thien, and loved every minute of it. It’s hard not to close your eyes and imagine what this place looked like in its prime.

12802987_10153976445544287_7085130485283673159_n
I saw a bunch of these buildings scattered around the property…all identical. I still have no idea what they were used for.

What transpired here? Why did this place succumb to the elements? Was there an accident that forced the place to close?

12800122_10153976447684287_1189234823654671017_n

This is why I love exploring deserted places.

Imagine: the people long gone; the stories long forgotten–

Lots of love,

Xx L

A SLOW BOAT & A SUITCASE

Traveling with a cookie pillow definitely gets me a lot of attention. People often cheer me on from across the street, stop me mid-stride to take photos, or sometimes (gasp!) attempt to take the pillow and run away…

12195105_10153720917484287_4304950385403256609_o
Here it is in all its obnoxious glory

But never in my travels have I gotten so many looks as when I was dragging my ass from Thailand to neighboring Laos…with a 50kg Tiffany blue suitcase.

While living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I came across a lot of travelers. I would often pick their brains about future travel destinations, as it’s always interesting to see where people are headed. Being in the north of Thailand, a popular option for travelers trying to get to Laos is to go by the slow boat on the Mekong River. It takes about 2 days, with a one night stop-over in a tiny village. The long-tail boat, while no means fancy, is an easy and affordable option for most backpackers. I had many friends who had taken it, so when my time came, I gave it a go.

So! Two days before my visa ran out in Thailand, I packed up “the essentials” in my suitcase, gave the rest of my apartment stuff to a neighbor (Sayam!), and hopped on a bus to Chiang Rai–a city about three hours away by bus from the border where I was going to catch the slow boat.

12742787_10153928065264287_2202549779775350972_n

6367_10153928067914287_8362652370135731366_n
The White Temple, Chiang Rai

Hopping into the tuk tuk with my suitcase, I was sad to leave Chiang Mai, but excited for my new adventure.

Flash-forward. Chiang Rai. 6am. Slow Boat Day #1.

Here’s the thing about living somewhere for a while: You collect a lot of shit.

I honestly didn’t think I had that much stuff when I left Thailand. I figured if I could pick up my suitcase, it couldn’t be that heavy… Sure–I got a lot of looks from other travelers with their North Face, Osprey, and Kathmandu 70L bags. Amateur? Hell no. I’ve been the the dirty backpacker. Europe. 2014. My back hurts, damn it. And I don’t miss re-packing a bag that only opens from the top. Lunacy. Like I said, I didn’t think I had that much stuff…

Until I tried to get the suitcase on top of the mini bus that was supposed to take me to the border. Apparently putting it inside the bus wasn’t an option. Shit. The Thai guy tossing those glorious backpacks up on the bus took one look at me and my suitcase and laughed.

Then he realized that I was serious.

He shook his head a bit. No. I shook mine back. Yes.

So I heaved the suitcase as high as I could, and with the help of two other girls, we threw the damn thing on top of the bus/man. He was fine, I promise.

The bus ride and the border crossing into Laos were surprisingly tame. Apart from a briefly chaotic visa process (you hand your passport over to someone at counter #1 and ten minutes later some random person at counter #2 is waving your passport around looking for a taker, like it’s hot-and-ready popcorn at a baseball game), everything went smoothly.

12717471_10153929701049287_2025417147810740024_n
Obligatory shitty border picture

DID YOU KNOW: From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos–that’s equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years–making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

So we get our visas and load up into another bus. A met a few folks by this point. They, of course, marvel at my choice of travel gear, cookie pillow included.

12742598_10153930974294287_7293218527236553594_n
This is Jeremy. Jeremy made good use of both the cookie pillow and the suitcase…while enjoying a Beer Lao.

In the new bus (truck?), the suitcase ended up in the back with all of us. Hope you didn’t want foot space…

I am that person.

By the time we get to the slow boat pier it’s about 11am. That’s when I see it: A steep, downhill walkway from the road to the river where the boat is docked.

It was at this point that I knew I was (ahem) fucked.

12697229_10153937415524287_6899327975635640896_o
It doesn’t look that steep, but it was. Trust me.

Some of the steps were missing! If by some chance I made it down the hill A.) without falling, tumbling down the hill, and impaling myself on one of the dock posts and B.) without taking some poor backpacker down with me in the process, it would be a miracle.

As I watched my fellow border buddies make their way down the path with their backpacks, I felt ill. Jeremy turned back to give me a thumbs up and a reassuring smile.

Thanks, Jeremy.

So, taking one step at a time, I heaved my bag down the steps very carefully. I don’t know how many steps there were, but it was enough to make me break a sweat.

At the end of the path I was greeted by a nice Laotian boat man who graciously took my bag and put it at the front of the boat. At least it wasn’t going to be buried under a pile of backpacks at the back! #victory.

12764657_10153937690859287_869800355767815130_o

The slow boat ride itself was one of the best experiences I have had traveling so far in Asia. The lush Laos jungle looked like something out of Jurassic Park (I was secretly hoping a T-rex would pop it’s head out of the tree canopy. Okay, maybe not a T-Rex…). Every so often we would see cattle, or a few fisherman. Bliss.

12711211_10153937689104287_8836864550768129570_o

12671806_10153937688274287_2236850823908416921_o

12729356_10153930974169287_881248812256366170_n

After 7 hours on the boat we stopped at a small town/village called Pakbeng. I had hopes that the hill going up from the riverside wouldn’t be as steep as going down. I was wrong.

Okay–I am strong, but not that strong. I know my limitations. So I more than willingly paid a guy $25,000 kip ($1) to carry my bag to the top. On his back. I never knew your name kind stranger but thank you!

Anyone that has ever been to Pakbeng can attest that there is virtually only one road for the whole town. And of course it’s uphill. Maybe God was trying to tell me something… Either way I dragged my bag all the way to the top of the hill and got myself a guesthouse for the night. Luckily my stubbornness (or is it tenacity??) paid off and the room was 20,000 kip cheaper than the ones the people were trying to sell me closer to the pier.

Fun fact about Laos: they were colonized by the French, which means they have bakeries–REAL BAKERIES. Anyway, I had a quiet night in Pakbeng, and by 8am the next morning I was dragging my bag back to the boat.

Day 2 of the boat ride was even better than the first–but most of that had to do with the fact that there wasn’t a group of people getting smashed off of Beer Lao and rave dancing at the back of the boat. This boat was smaller, by comparison, and had noteworthy seating (and by ‘noteworthy’ I mean that some of these car seats–yes, car seats–would collapse from under you upon sitting down. It was good fun, albeit inconvenient).

12705575_10153930974079287_1676541457813694059_n
More awesome Laos scenery on the Mekong River!

Finally, after another 7hrs, we arrived in Luang Prabang. This time I braved the hill (slightly less steep and with spiral stairs leading to the top), and took my bag up myself. Admittedly, I had managed to purge some things the night before, so the suitcase was somewhat lighter. Upon arrival at the top I was greeted by a large group of fellow boat-goers and their backpacks. I got congratulated by one guy who swiftly handed me a bottle of rum for my exhausting efforts.

One swig later and I was once again dragging my bag down a road. Bus taxis with other tourists passed me, trying to convince me to join them. Not for 20,000 kip. No, thank you. So I made my way to the main road and waited for a tuk tuk. Not too much later I was obliged by an awesome tuk tuk driver and three monks (two of whom were children). They took me to city center Luang Prabang for 8,000 kip. Win.

12716220_10153937415409287_6715683664137712106_o
Thank you for letting me hijack your tuk tuk!

I spent about a week in Laos, where I visited the quaint riverside town of Luang Prabang, and the dusty, clay-trodden party village of Vang Vieng. Out of a combination of sheer pride and steadfast stubbornness, I took that stupid suitcase with me everywhere. I got looks. I got applauses. But mostly, I got tired. Southeast Asia is not the place to travel with a suitcase.

12696946_10153937412294287_2782629441889609818_o859362_10153937410249287_6432519008877485478_o
The Kuang Si waterfall outside of Luang Prabang, Laos–this place was unreal!

1935103_10153948127034287_4573665609203274806_n
The cookie crew in Vang Vieng, Ryan, Xander, and Ollie.

10295544_10153937393224287_8075512440505559977_o
The harp-wielding, super fit, Korean man who convinced his tour boat man to let me on their boat…when mine left me behind at the Whisky Village in Luang Prabang.  I ate an authentic Korean lunch with his entire family afterwards. Kamsahamnida!

12743496_10153948129214287_574871825660346709_n
British bloke, Ollie, riding a motorbike for the first time…like a badass. 

10429815_10153948129909287_7768892293743654736_n10712816_10153948128119287_3549179298884090825_n
Vang Vieng, famous for its clay roads, restaurants that only play reruns of Friends, and drunk tourists that tube down the river. Well–it is a beautiful river.

If my experiences in Laos weren’t tell-tale enough, attempting to fly to Vietnam a week later proved it once and for all.
10269495_10153948459564287_658050478281319603_n
Only .2kg to spare! Yikes…

If I wanted any chance of continuing my travels comfortably (and perhaps picking up a few must-have souvenirs from various places), I needed to downsize.

So I did.

Once I got to Hanoi, I weeded through my belongings. And there was no mercy. I threw some stuff away, gave a few things to fellow travelers, and left most stuff around the hostel for people to find like it’s an Easter egg hunt. Hitting the streets of Hanoi, it wasn’t too hard to find a new bag. Knock-off North Face stores litter this town like 7/11s do every street corner of Thailand. In the end I was able to score a Kipling bag for a good price.

Screenshot 2016-06-15 at 2.43.42 PM
One of the notorious and abundant North Face shops around Vietnam.

Don’t get too excited folks. It still has wheels…

But! It’s a duffel bag, at least. Significantly smaller and lighter. And I got rid of so much stuff that I can carry it with one hand.

Lesson learned! [sort of].

Thanks for listening 🙂

Cheers!

Xx L