2006 Vagabonding Summary – Southeast Asia

I decided to attempt to compile my entire Southeast Asia adventure into a single mega-post. Its a long one, and comes across as a bragging session (which it is of course) so consider yourself warned.
[This was much better with photos but they were removed due to host problems]

Vagabonding begins!
On Jan 23 I left the US (for the first time) with a one way ticket to Bangkok. I had no real plan, no dates to keep, and I was about as green as a newbie backpacker can get at surviving abroad. Over the next few months I experienced some of the best and worst times of my life. I never expected!

Thailand
I fell in love with this place, and I firmly believe my heart is buried under some white sand somewhere on one of the islands I hopped around. I literally traveled almost all over, east, west, north, and south for over 3 months. The Thai people with their jai dee smiles will always be on my mind. I started in Bangkok like everyone else, but escaped to the peaceful Kanchanaburi on the river Kwai. I then hit three islands in the Gulf of Thailand, and attended the infamous Full Moon and Half Moon on Koh Phangan. Imagine 15,000 people in a rave on the beach, some wearing nothing but body paint, sharing sweat (among other things) and dancing barefooted in the sand until the sun muscles its way up to make people too hot to dance. Its an experience to say the least. I even took a class and learned how to spin the fire torch, which got me lots of mostly positive attention when I traveled over the next month, carrying it in my hands. I then got introduced to scuba diving as do a lot of others on the island of Ko Tao. I liked it so much I went for my Openwater certification. There on the island, early in the morning, I swam out 200M from the shore in cloudy water and snorkeled with almost a dozen 6 foot long, Black Tip Reef Sharks, with no boat or land to hop up on, I will never forget. I did night dives with hunting barracudas, which are equally docile, and giant sting rays. On Ko Samui, the 3rd island in the group, I was walking up the stairs in a jungle temple early in the morning alone. I literally nearly stepped on a bright green bamboo viper that simply looked at me, tasted the air, then climbed the steps beside me all the way to the giant Buddha statue. We parted friends (thank God).

I then crossed over to the West coast of Thailand, to the famous Krabi and Railay where I did some world class rock climbing and free solo scrambling on the sea cliffs. Despite one nasty little slip, I left for the most part unscathed and made my way to the Andaman Sea, where I hopped around the islands for weeks. On Ko Phi Phi, the island most hit by the tsunami last year, I got my Advanced scuba certification along with deep and shipwreck certification. I dived with banded sea snakes (the most poisonous snake in the world), gentle leopard sharks, and even more dangerous Dutch people. I had a nearly-disastrous dive diving a shipwreck there in deep water, with nitrogen narcosis making me crazy, and a bad BCD making life difficult inside the wreck. Night after night, we would party all night on the beach, watch the fireshows, then drag ourselves out to dive the next morning. On the island of Ko Lanta, I swam inside a dark sea cave and explored for hours until the tide forced me out. The next day, I hired a horse and spent all morning riding (or learning how to anyway) on the beach alone. I left a part of myself on those islands in the Andaman.

Laos
With my visa pretty much used up, I decided to avoid prison by going north in Laos. I crossed the border into Vientiane and was greeted by communist and AK47s everywhere. This was my first visit as an American to a communist country, and it proved very interesting. In Vientiane, the capital of Laos, I got my worst case of food poisoning from the street food, and as I lay in my tiny $3US guest house room alone, shaking with fever, terrible thoughts were going through my head. I was alone, knew no one in this country, and neither my family nor government knew where I was. I beat the sickness, and in 3 days regained enough strength to take a very winding and dodgey bus ride across the mountains to Vang Vieng. This tiny town, built on an old French airstrip, will forever be the “Laos” to me. There, I hired a mountain bike and rode through the mountains with a map, and with a friend explored an underwater cave, hot springs, and even a wild cave that was about the peak of my spelunking abilities. I sampled roasted bat on a stick (tastes a little like rat) and learned to trek while keeping an eye out for landmines which are still everywhere. I reluctantly left and took a bus to Luang Prabang, one of the last major stops in the north before China. The old French city turned out to be quite charming and I spent time with the Buddhist monks there in one of the famous temples. After a week of city luxuries, I chose to take the fast boat out of Laos, down the Mekong River and back into Thailand. Words can barely describe how loud, uncomfortable, and dangerous these tiny boats are. The normal journey takes 2 days, these guys do it in 8 hours, skipping over the deadly whirlpools on the river at 50MPH. To make things more interesting, we left the day after a massive rainstorm, so the river was angry and not in a mood to be toyed with. I survived the ride and despite a sore bum, was standing back in Thailand the next day.

Thailand (again)
I fought the cravings to return to my beloved islands and decided to spend the next month exploring the north of Thailand. I started by hiring a motorcycle in Chiang Mai and riding all the way to Mae Hong Son, a small town in the farthest northwest corner near Myanmar/Burma. The ride through the mountains was an adventure in itself, I had a map but no ideas of what I was getting myself into. I ran out of petrol at one point and had to pay a farmer to give me some from the hand pump he used for his farm implements. I passed numerous forest fires burning out of control, sometimes on both sides and across the road. The weather was so hot and dry, there was no hope to control them, so they just let the jungle burn. In Mae Hong Son, I explored the famous Karen longneck tribe villages and took part in a monk initiation festival with lots of colors and dancing. At night, I could hear mortars, presumably the resistance in Burma fighting to get their country back from the hated Myanmar regime. After a week there, I backtracked back down the dangerous mountain road, endured a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, and pushed my bike several kilometers into the small town of Pai, a backpackers retreat. Pai is the kind of place you have to set an exit date for, or you will end up staying months…and some people do! I trekked to waterfalls in the jungle with no other humans around. I had the pleasure of riding an elephant to the river, then letting him toss me off like a toy into the muddy but cooling water.
I left Pai and rode an exhausted motorbike into Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, just in time for the huge Songkran water festival. The best way to describe Songkran would be Mardis Gras meets the world’s largest water fight. I was not dry for at least a week, and spent all day dancing dripping wet in the streets and sharing the craic with people from all over the world. In Chiang Mai, I also did my first Bungee jump from 150ft, the most difficult 2 steps (off the platform) I have ever taken in my life, seeing that I was the first jumper that week and the staff didn’t speak much English! Sadly, the fun in Chiang Mai was slightly overcast by the shadow of my favorite and closest uncle’s death at home. After receiving the news, I stood crying on a payphone in the street. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time I had to do this on my trip.

Cambodia
Rather than invest days crossing Thailand again, I took a short and cheap flight from Chiang Mai to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Unlike Thailand, which is rich compared to its neighbors, this place opened my eyes to the types of poverty and distress that some people are unfortunately born into on our planet. My heart went out to these people. There is no feeling like buying some bananas in the market, only to turn around and have a gathering of armless, legless, and blind landmine victims behind you begging for one. These beggars don’t ask for money like their American counterparts, they literally ask for a swallow of water from your water bottle or a the core of your finished apple. Years of war including the American Vietnam war and The Khmer Rouge have left these people desperate and sincere. I spent the week exploring Angkor Wat, one of the man made wonders of the world. The temples are spread across hundreds of kilometers, and I managed to escape the tourists by going an hour by motorcycle to a remote village, then hiring a non-English speaking guide to help me avoid the numerous landmines through the jungle to explore one of the hidden temple sites. I was the only one there, and I felt like I was climbing around a museum or something. Literally at my feet, were stone statues that had been carved by the Khmer people over a thousand years ago and now they lay scattered around the jungle floor, forgotten.
In one of the more popular temples, I was harassed by a Cambodian police officer, which are notoriously dangerous. I loved Cambodia, but constantly being pummeled by the poverty and the abundant sadness in the villages becomes taxing, so I caught a 16 hour bus ride over the worst imaginable roads back into Thailand.

Thailand (last time I promise)
My original loose plan had me flying from Bangkok to Melbourne, which is a fairly inexpensive flight and explains why there were so many Aussies in Thailand. Given the current situation of my family’s health, I decided to abort and fly home for a month or two to sort things out. I booked a flight to Orlando, Florida, to meet up with my family which was on holiday there. To kill my last week in Thailand, like most people on their way out, I visited the island of Ko Chang, just a few hours south of Bangkok. The island was touristy as expected, but I did find a proper backpacker’s beach with decent prices and the occasional fire show. There on that island, just days before I was set to leave Thailand, my friend from Oslo which was one of the nicest girls you could ever hope to meet and also my bungalow-mate, was drugged and raped on the beach. The next day I listened helpless to her heartbreaking sobs as we did what we could to comfort her, then hired a longtail boat to take her off the island and back to Bangkok where she could fly home. The police proved completely useless as expected, so I ended my Thailand experience, by arming myself and hunting day and night on the street and in all the beachside clubs for the guy that did that to her (I had seen them together). For some reason, I think about this from time to time when someone gives me a hard time for “being on vacation for one year”.

Coming home
I left Bangkok in late May and after a very introspective 23 hour flight home, I landed in Orlando and shared hugs and welcome homes with my parents, sister and husband, niece, and nephew. We spent the next week in the epitome of American tourist hell (Disney World), but I was happier than I have ever been. I fought the jet lag and the urge to drive on the left side of the road, but had the time of my life doing it. The first time I started to remove my shoes before going into a restaurant, I knew that something inside of me had changed, for the good. Also, I knew that after tasting the addictive essence of adventure travel, that I would not be able to keep my wanderlust sedated for long. I had barely been home 3 weeks before I was already booking tickets and planning.

My backpack was never unpacked.

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