An Afternoon Wandering HCM

Walking back to the hotel, the realization hit me.  My trip was over.  The planning, the tickets, everything that I had obsessed over for the past few months was just...over.  It's silly to say, but I felt a loss and mourned the end of the adventure.  On the flight home, I couldn't decide if I was ready to go home in order to (a) relax, or (b) start scheming up something new.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong had a stronghold in the Cu Chi District, where they could take advantage of their intricate underground tunnel system. The tunnel digging actually began about 20 years prior to the Vietnam War, when the country was fighting for independence from France.  By the time the Vietnam War was in full swing, however, the tunnels had expanded to stretch over 120 miles and were key in the Viet Cong's strategy.

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Farm Visit & Cooking Class

Sad to say goodbye to Cambodia, our group bus-ed from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City.  You have lots of options for this route, but we chose the Mekong Express.  At ~$13 for a one-way ticket, it's the most expensive bus option but the reliability and relative comfort was worth it.  Plus, 13 buckeroos buys you an on-board TV, featuring 6 straight hours of dubbed 80's love ballads.  If only I was feeling well enough to rally for a good round of karaoke.  On our last day in Phnom Penh, my stomach staged a revolt and I was struggling to enjoy myself.  If my cocktail of 7Up, white rice, Cipro, & Pepto Bismol didn't work, I'd get better by sheer willpower. Something was working because, by the next day, I was feeling marginally better.  This was good timing, as we had a day full of food on the docket!  Leaving the chaos of the city behind, we headed out to the Cu Chi district for Chef Tan's HCM Cooking Class.

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S-21 & Khmer Rouge Killing Fields

In January, Chase and I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and I found it to be an incredibly moving experience.  Visiting the S-21 prison and the killing fields in Phnom Penh evoked similar emotions. Prior to our trip to Cambodia, I knew that the government had recently and crudely killed its own citizens (*shudder*).  What I didn't understand was why.  Luke Walker from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies wrote a brief synopsis that captures what we learned by wandering through the memorial sites in Phnom Penh and talking to our bike tour guides in Siem Reap:

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Paddy's Fight Club

When we rode our bikes through the Angkor temples (in case you missed it), we met two Phnom Penh residents--an Australian girl and her Swedish roommate.  They were so friendly and gave us various recommendations of what to do when we rolled into Phnom Penh.  One of the things that they suggested was...wait for it...kick boxing at Paddy's Fight Club. A few days later, on the long bus ride from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we all agreed that kickboxing was just what we needed to let off some steam and lift our spirits.  Plus, with a name like Paddy's Fight Club, how could we not go?!

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Phnom Kulen National Park

On our third day in Siem Reap, we wanted to get out.  Perhaps the prior day's trip to Beng Mealea had affirmed the good times to be had when you step out of tourist central.  Or perhaps it was the thought of cooling off in a waterfall. ;) We used our hotel, the Golden Butterfly Villa (full review here), to arrange a car for the day.  Our destination: the waterfall in Phnom Kulen National Park.  Ever since Ryan (also with us on this trip) organized the trip to Havasupai Falls in 2012, I'll admit that I've been a waterfall chaser.

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Biking Through the Countryside to Beng Mealea

On our first day in Cambodia, we biked around the Angkor temples, but our second day was arguably my most favorite of the entire trip. We hired a guide (again through Grasshopper Adventures) to lead us ~40 miles into the Cambodian countryside to visit the far-flung temple of Beng Mealea.   We met our guide early in the morning, signed our lives away, then got situated on the mountain bikes that would be ours for the rest of the day.  The day was already hot, slated to reach around 95 degrees Fahrenheit that afternoon.

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Angkor Temples by Bike

As I left Thailand, I prepared myself to be a unnerved by Cambodia. I shouldn't have gone through the effort, though, because Cambodia calmed me from the start.  First, it was the friendly people.  We flew into a rinky-dink airport and were greeted  by a man with a smile and a tuk tuk.  The hotel had sent him.  He loaded our bags into his tuk tuk (a motorbike with a passenger cart hitched to it), smiled at us some more, and then motored down the road to our hotel.

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Big Elephants and Big Buddha

Before a logging ban imposed by the Thai government in the late 1980's, many elephants worked  in the logging industry.  Doing so provided for their food and care.  Since the ban, the majority of these elephants were out of work and their mahouts (a sort of caretaker that stays with the animal for life) had to find alternate ways of getting enough food and adequate care for their animals.  The logging ban coincided with the rise of tourism to Thailand, so many elephants went from the logging industry to tourist camps, which (in many cases) provides employment for the mahouts, a vet for the elephants, and a way the elephant can get adequate nutrition and care.

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The Koh Phi Phi Islands

Kursten and I often joked that we didn't sleep very much while on vacation. We went through a lot of trouble to be on the other side of the world, so why would we be asleep for it!? Ain't nobody got time for that! In that spirit, we were up early the next day to catch a ferry to Koh Phi Phi Don island.  The ferry was actually quite nice.  It took ~ 2 hours to get from Phuket to Koh Phi Phi Don island, but there was a nice breeze, and we passed some really beautiful islands on the way there.

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Kayaking in Phang Nga Bay

We arrived in Thailand at 2 AM. After 30+ hours of traveling and some massive flight delays, we were hoping that our driver hadn't given up on us.

As we crossed the threshold into Phuket, a crowd of taxi drivers closed in around us, shouting prices for rides. I could feel my pulse quicken and my eyes scanned the crowd for a sign with my name on it. Where's my name, where's my name, where's my name....thank God, there it is, there's our driver.  Relief.

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The Logistics of It All [Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam]

They say that if you come back from travel well rested and relaxed, you did it wrong. I returned from 2.5 weeks in SE Asia exhausted and jet lagged, yet immensely content--so I'd say that say I did something very right. ;)  Since coming home, friends and family have asked lots of questions about the itinerary and related travel logistics.  I thought that before I blog about the highlights of the trip, this would be a good opportunity to set aside a post dedicated to the "how".  HOW did this trip come together?  I've listed some of the most frequently asked questions below, but keep in mind that there are a hundred ways to slice and dice this.  This was just the way I chose. :D

How long were you gone?  2.5 weeks, plus one day on each end of the trip to both prepare and recover.

What was your itinerary?  I've created a little calendar representation of our trip.  If you click on the image, it will enlarge and become readable.  Anything in yellow depicts how we traveled.  The purple and blue boxes at the bottom of each day show what city we were in and the hotel we chose.  Then, in the white space of each day, I've written a high-level blurb about what activities we did.

Click on image for larger display

How did you pick which cities you visited?  I put together a list from online travel magazines and blogs, and reached out to a few people I knew that either lived there or had recently visited.  From my list, I picked the cities that were easily linked via a half day's trip.  I wanted to maximize my time abroad, not spend all of it on a plane or bus, getting to places that were too ambitious for a 2.5 week holiday.

How did you pick your activities:  I went with the logic of every-other-day, I'd plan/book something fun, like snorkeling or a bike trip out to the Cambodian countryside.  On the off days, I'd just wander and do whatever presented itself.  From there, I read reviews...hundreds of reviews (mostly on TripAdvisor)...until I found things I thought I would like that weren't too touristy.

How did you get your friends to come with you?  I planned the trip assuming I'd go solo, but hoping for travel buddies.  Once I got a solid itinerary in place, I told everyone I knew about it.  People with interest and enough time off jumped on board.

Why didn't you go to Bangkok?  Originally, it was on our itinerary, right after Koh Phi Phi.  Hotels were booked and everything.  I pulled the plug because I was spooked by the "CNN Effect" of the political demonstrations and the State of Emergency that was declared by the Thai government.  It made me feel safer at the time but looking back, I feel regret.

Is there anything you would do differently the next time?  I'm glad I experienced what I did, but if I were to go on this exact same trip a second time: 1) I would go to Bangkok. 2) I would not go back to Koh Phi Phi.  It was beautiful and the beach parties were a blast, but one visit was enough for me.  I would have spent the time on Koh Samui or Koh Phagnan. 3) I would go to Northern Vietnam country instead of Southern Vietnam city.  My favorite day in HCM city was when we were out of it, on a farm.

What was the pre-trip preparation like?  Hours upon hours of online research.  Some people can buy a ticket, and leave the next day with a backpack.  I am not one of those people.  An international plane fare is not cheap, so I didn't want to blow my time abroad figuring out what to do on the fly.  As I mentioned above, not every moment was scripted, though.  On every other day I let myself just "be" and explore.  But I did make sure to bake a lot of stuff into the trip on the front end.  Also, getting things like visas, vaccinations, a plan for communicating with loved ones back home, and a little currency to get you started takes deliberate forethought.

How did you communicate while over there?  I have an iPhone, which I left on airplane mode the entire time and bummed off public free wifi to send periodic emails and pictures back home.  In addition, my travel buddy, Kursten, and I both purchased a cheap international phones and sim cards, which we could use overseas if we were to get separated.

What did you bring with you? I left home with a backpackers pack, like the one pictured below.  I also brought a small cross body travel purse (I used Pac Safe) and a small backpack for daytrips (I used Lowepro, which helped keep my DSLR handy). Other than that, the essentials were: 1) A little pharmacy of Pepto Bismol, Advil, Insect Bite cream, Moleskin. 2) Tons of sunscreen and bug spray. 3) Copies of my passport and other important documents, kept separate from the real things, but never in a checked bag.

All packed up and ready to go!

All packed up and ready to go!

Now on to blogging about the fun stuff :)  I've got a few posts in the queue, coming at you fast!

Adding some bonus countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

Adding some bonus countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam

The Next Six Weeks

Peculiar things, these opportunities.  Sometimes they fall out of the sky and slap you in the face, begging you to notice them.  On the other side of the spectrum, they ask you get off your lazy butt and create them from scratch. I'll be traveling quite a bit over the next six weeks, so I thought I'd fill you in on how each of these opportunities came to fruition.  They each fell in very different places along that spectrum.

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Conversations with Strangers

Since the decision to go to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, getting my arms around a basic itinerary was difficult.  Traveling abroad, especially to the Indochina region, was different than planning the trip to Philly to visit my brother.  In other words, I couldn't just totally wing it and rely on my I.B.D.I.'s. I spent hours poring over Trip Advisor and travel blogs, but that just got me excited without any real progress. I had a rough road map (at best) and it was obvious...I needed to talk to someone.

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